De-Vilifying Heathcliff

This post is written by guest writer, Rachel Stogner. I found Rachel on Instagram (@caffeaulait) a couple months ago and fell in love with the photos she shares. One can always find the most thoughtful book reviews and/or literary analyses in her captions. I love the Wuthering Heights novel so when I saw that Rachel wrote a review for it, I asked her to write one for my blog.

Literature is often at the mercy of film. The first screen adaptation of a book provides not only the visual blueprint for future adaptations, but also the cultural shorthand for the source text. Popular memory remembers Frankenstein’s animation of his monster with lightning and a sewn-together corpse, as depicted in the 1931 film. The novel includes none of this — the creature comes alive in a vat of chemicals, and is fully formed, not made from stolen body parts. These textual differences didn’t occur to me, even after reading Frankenstein twice, until a professor pointed them out. The popular memory overcame Shelley’s vision, the description vague enough to ignore the discrepancies and pave over with my own preconceptions. 

Frankenstein’s alterations came about due to changes in technology, a natural progression for sci-fi. The theories that had inspired Shelley — Erasmus Darwin’s spontaneous generation and Galvani’s electrical stimulation of twitching frog legs — evolved into the early patchwork reconstructive surgery of World War I veterans and primitive electroshock therapy. However, not all narrative changes occur so seamlessly, as any Percy Jackson or Eragon fan can attest. 

The Heathcliff of the screen is largely a brooding, spurned man, fueled by rejection due to class, and driven mad by the ghost of his lover, but relatively harmless — he is largely redeemable, sympathetic, a familiar Gothic hero.

When it came to Wuthering Heights, “the greatest love story ever told,” the difference between the novel and its many adaptations left me horrified. The popular interpretations edit out spousal and animal abuse, rape, murder, and racism, in favor of a more easily swallowed love triangle and star-crossed lovers separated by classism. Heathcliff does not hang his kidnapped wife’s dog and then (presumably) rape her, nor does he force his deceased lover’s daughter to marry his insufferable, dying son. The Heathcliff of the screen is largely a brooding, spurned man, fueled by rejection due to class, and driven mad by the ghost of his lover, but relatively harmless — he is largely redeemable, sympathetic, a familiar Gothic hero.

Their adolescent passion is no longer “half-savage and hardy, and free,” two teenagers hiding away in the hills, but conventional and sweet, a young girl with an armful of white flowers.

Of the fourteen film adaptations of Wuthering Heights, none have been so impactful in the reshaping of our understanding of the story than the 1939 version. The film is relatively faithful to the first half of the novel’s events, although it is condensed to remove the second half of the story and the second generation of characters. This leaves out most of Heathcliff’s cruelest actions, by removing the largely innocent child characters. His manipulation and abuse of Isabella is reduced to being a disloyal, cold husband. Few of his other unsavory actions, from his misogyny (“sl*t” was a favorite insult) to his abuse, make it to screen. Even the love story, famed for its monstrous passion, is declawed. When Heathcliff and Catherine are having a blossoming romance on the moors, it is not the fierce, untamed wild that appeals to them, but the blooming heather. Their adolescent passion is no longer “half-savage and hardy, and free,” two teenagers hiding away in the hills, but conventional and sweet, a young girl with an armful of white flowers.

wuthering heighs movie poster

Not only would portraying an interracial relationship have caused a scandal……it would also would have recalled the racist stereotypes of non-white people and violence, passion, and sex, not to mention blatant hatred, that would make even a toned-down Heathcliff unsympathetic to a white audience steeped in the Jim Crow era.

Heathcliff’s actions were not the only thing that had to be smoothed out to make him palatable to a 1939 film audience. They had to strip away his quintessential “otherness” as well, to take his character from “a man’s shape animated by demon life – a Ghoul – an Afreet” to a redeemable gothic villain. Although villains often are portrayed by minorities, a pattern established by Hays Code censorship and Gothic xenophobia, the 1939 film ignored his undetermined mixed heritage (Heathcliff is described as Romani (“g*psy”), Southeast Asian [“Lascar”], American, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, and “black,”), opting to cast an Anglo-Saxon Englishman. Not only would portraying an interracial relationship have caused a scandal (if it would have been permitted to be filmed in the first place), it would also would have recalled the racist stereotypes of non-white people and violence, passion, and sex, not to mention blatant hatred, that would make even a toned-down Heathcliff unsympathetic to a white audience steeped in the Jim Crow era. Although, even now, most “redeemable” and “irredeemable” villains follow this racialized dichotomous trope. 

The film does not completely ignore the fact that Heathcliff is not of the English gentry; the phrase “g*psy beggar” is liberally used as an insult, although the actor portraying him, Laurence Olivier, is an Anglo-Saxon Englishman through and through. Visually, he is no different than the rest of the cast. (Ironically, Catherine, played by Merle Oberon, was the only non-English, non-white actor.) Instead, the term denotes more about class than ethnicity. In 1939, the white American audience was likely much more comfortable with discussions of classism than racism. Class fluidity was an acceptable brush with nonconformity, a comfortable social evil. It wasn’t until 2011, 13 films later, that a person of color portrayed Heathcliff, after generations of white, straight, cisgender obsessive, moody bad boys dominated the screen. This was not necessarily a return to the text; the plot is largely lifted from the 1939 film, and race became less an object of the film’s concern, more that of critics’ reactions. 

We become an audience of Isabellas, looking for the Gothic hero in Heathcliff where there is only cruelty and obsession.

Despite being published nearly a century before the first film adaptation in 1920 (a film now considered lost media), the novel Wuthering Heights seems to have lost its grip on the public imagination. Perhaps it is the accessibility of the film that made it stick. Reading a 400-page novel is not quite as attractive as sitting down for an hour and a half. Or, maybe it is simply more appealing to our sensibilities — just like stuffy Victorian critics, we would prefer Wuthering Heights to be a little less harsh. We become an audience of Isabellas, looking for the Gothic hero iDespite being published nearly a century before the first film adaptation in 1920 (a film now considered lost media), the novel Wuthering Heights seems to have lost its grip on the public imagination. Perhaps it is the accessibility of the film that made it stick. Reading a 400-page novel is not quite as attractive as sitting down for an hour and a half. Or, maybe it is simply more appealing to our sensibilities — just like stuffy Victorian critics, we would prefer Wuthering Heights to be a little less harsh, a little less subversive. We become an audience of Isabellas, looking for the Gothic hero in Heathcliff where there is only cruelty and obsession. We can find that in the adaptation: a man consumed by passion, but accessible, redeemable, not challenging our expectations or tastes or desires. We want the flowers of the moors, but none of its wildness, and the films give us just that. 

you can find Rachel on Instagram @caffeaulait

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