Wuthering Heights is notoriously hard to adapt to film. The novel's narrative-within-a-narrative (sometimes within another narrative) structure does not lend itself to visual storytelling. The complex histories and relationships between the various characters do not lend themselves to the quick, two-hour jaunts into fictional worlds that movies typically represent. And then, too, there is the problem of perspective: the novel is written from Nelly's perspective, as interpreted by Mr. Lockwood. A film, by contrast, provides a sense of objectivity simply by virtue of the fact that one sees the action through one's own eyes rather than through the eyes or words of anyone else. How does one represent an unreliable narrator (or unreliable set of narrators) in a visual medium?
The answer is that most film adaptations don't even try. The complexities of the novel are more often than not stripped away to create an entirely new and much simpler story. And this new story? More often than not it romanticizes the tempestuous relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, entirely leaving off the second half of the novel following Catherine's death.
The 1939 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights from director William Wyler is the first in a long list of adaptations that focus only on the first half of the novel. The plot revolves around the—at first—love triangle of Heathcliff, Catherine and Edgar, though Isabella is later brought in as Heathcliff's revenge on Catherine. Though it retains some of the selfishness that characterizes both Heathcliff and Catherine in the novel, the characters of Edgar and Isabella are relatively uncomplicated by the flaws that mark them in the novel. Isabella, for instance, is merely naive rather than willfully and foolishly blind to Heathcliff's flaws.
Though Heathcliff and Catherine remain flawed, they are not nearly as flawed as they are in the novel. Catherine, for instance, is not the wild, demanding woman-child who mocks and abuses Edgar for refusal to comply with any of her demands. Instead, she is torn between her duty to and affection for Edgar and her helpless, hopeless love for Heathcliff. Compare Catherine's attitude toward Edgar in the novel versus the movie:
The characterization is strikingly different, and Heathcliff is similarly softened. A considerable portion of the blame for Heathcliff's transformation from devil to romantic hero can very likely be laid at the feet of this movie. It is generally agreed that while, as a film, it succeeds brilliantly, as an adaptation it fails just as spectacularly—probably a fair assessment given that it omits half its source material and significantly changes the other half.
Like the 1939 version, the 1970 version of Wuthering Heights omits half the story, ending with Hindley shooting Heathcliff after Catherine's death, and significantly changes some of the characters—but the characters changed, in this case, are not Heathcliff and Catherine, but Nelly and Hindley. Catherine and Heathcliff are actually quite accurately portrayed. Compare the following passage from the novel...
...with its portrayal in the film:
As it turned out, however, 20th century audiences weren't much more enamored with the real Heathcliff and Catherine than 19th century reviewers. The movie did rather poorly, and it still possesses only a mediocre rating on IMDb.
The 1992 version of Wuthering Heights actually manages to cover the entire book, but that, as it turns out, is exactly its problem: it covers the entire book. In 105 minutes.
Catherine is, once again, made entirely too good and noble in this version, remaining determinedly committed to Edgar rather than simply throwing a tantrum whenever someone questions whom she loves more, as she does in the book:
If the rest of the characterizations are relatively unobjectionable, that may be because they are nearly nonexistent. 105 minutes is, after all, less than thirty seconds for each page of the novel. Note, too, the narrator's description of the novel as "a love story as timeless as the landscape that inspired it" contrasted with "a love that destroyed everyone it touched." While not necessarily mutually exclusive, the juxtaposition does cry out for a little more explanation than the trailer offers.
The 1978 mini-series by the BBC is among the best film adaptations that have been released. The actors may not be the most precisely suited to the roles in terms of age, but the plot and characterizations follow the novel closely. Catherine is selfish and absolutely terrible, and Heathcliff is rigidly unforgiving—precisely as they ought to be.
Titled Abismos de pasion in Spanish, this Mexican take on Wuthering Heights is another film which, though not perfectly true to the source material, is generally considered well-crafted as a movie, and it manages to remain true to the spirit of the novel.
The final scene of the movie overflows with the obsessive horror that characterizes so much of Wuthering Heights:
If it seems overdone by today's standards, then all the better—most Victorian-era writing seems overdone now, and Wuthering Heights is no exception.
Wuthering Heights has been adapted many times, and this selection is only a sampling of the most notable of these attempts. They provide a good overview of the pitfalls of trying to adapt a complex, dialogue-heavy novel like Wuthering Heights, though, as well as a few ways it might be achieved—with greater and lesser degrees of fidelity to the plot, themes, and characters of the source material.