Wuthering Heights and the Horror of Falling in Love

Movies Features Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights and the Horror of Falling in Love

In film, young love is something that is often captured in sweet, hazy frames. This new and innocent experience is conveyed in a set number of ways: Cumbersome and unwieldy limbs spinning out (Lady Bird); sunny and pastel-drenched shots of innocent joy (Moonrise Kingdom); sloppy and ill-judged first kisses (The Princess Diaries). But over a century ago, Emily Brontë crafted a new language around fictional first loves, one that wasn’t so frothy, one that was muscular and angry. Set on the wild moorland, Wuthering Heights follows Cathy and Heathcliff across 30 years as they traverse the craggy hills and valleys of North Yorkshire. They grow into and around one another like thistles spurting up, constricting until any life is choked out, thick and heady enough to block out the sunny promise of “happily ever after.”

Cathy and Heathcliff are shorthand for a kind of unruly, death-defying epic love—grittier and muddier than Romeo and Juliet, more animalistic than Darcy and Elizabeth. William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights knows of their larger-than-life reputation, crafting something worthy of its otherworldly size. Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier are a perfect blend of unsubtle choices as Cathy and Heathcliff; both performers are unafraid of facing one another, eyes swimming, locked in the intensity of the moment (and all the Cathy-Heathcliff moments that have come before). 

Midway through this film, Heathcliff is the soot-covered outcast, lumbering around Wuthering Heights, working for free. Cathy is doll-like and delicate, no longer the maddeningly confident young girl. When her abusive brother Hindley (Hugh Williams) leaves the house, she dashes outside, galloping past Heathcliff, fixed on the sky and sinking into the horizon. He looks up, and the corners of his mouth are pinned to his ears, his brow is lifted, his cumbersome frame suddenly light. They are children again, channeling the younger performers we first saw play the characters. For a brief, flashing moment, Olivier even looks like Rex Downing (the younger Heathcliff), nimble and slight, all crunched features and teeth. Maybe they are not submitting to time. Maybe time is submitting to them. 

In one of the book’s most famous lines, Cathy reflects on their tempestuous dynamic: “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” It is the line that launched a thousand—probably more like a million—ships (e.g. Etsy tote bags and notebooks for moody teenagers newly acquainted with classic literature). It is also ominous, a cryptically designed warning. Pronouns are positioned in concentric patterns—“our” is sandwiched between “he” and “I” because that is the shape of their relationship. They are brought together only to push apart. It has been read as a romantic declaration, but really it is a bit of gothic foreshadowing. From this point on, their fate is sealed, and it is up to filmmakers to ascertain the “whatever” Cathy speaks of; every subsequent version of this story is dedicated to defining the new texture of this ugly love. 

In her controversial 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold uses her brand of stark naturalism to ground Cathy and Heathcliff’s love in the muck and mire of the English countryside. In her retelling, this is the feel of their love: Grimy and seeping, stuck underneath their fingernails and behind their ears. Wyler argues that there is something inkier, darker that gurgles between them. While Arnold largely discounts the actual structure of Wuthering Heights, investing in its wild surroundings, the 1939 version locks much of the plot within the shadowy structure itself, confining action to musty corners. Throughout, love is the force unforgivingly bearing down on the couple, keeping them locked in the dark. 

The early stages of every relationship carry a kind of horrifying anticipation, while the late stages of every relationship are filled with painful memories pulling the lovers back to the beginning. In other words: Couples are either confronted with a kind of impending doom, or they are haunted. In between, there is the potential for growth. Wuthering Heights is the rare story that oscillates wildly between both modes, never resting in the calm space between and carving out an environment where life is only possible in extremes. Late into the 1939 film, Cathy’s unassuming sister-in-law, Isabella Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald) falls for Heathcliff, and he welcomes her advances as a kind of twisted bargaining tool. When Cathy starts to die, Isabella dwells on this state of precarity: “If Cathy dies, I may begin to live.” In Wyler’s version, love is like life—an impure force compromised by the end that inevitably follows.

Wuthering Heights’ legacy stretches forward in fascinating ways, not just ensuring that a style of gothic love story remains in vogue, but encouraging fiction to blur the lines between romance and horror. Wyler intimately understands this oxymoron, embodying it in markedly simple ways, through employing skilled actors and crafting real sets. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (and the subsequent Joel Schumacher film) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and the subsequent Francis Ford Coppola film) both frame a love triangle that veers wildly between sex and romance, day and night, death and life. 

Despite its misgivings, Twilight feels like the most obvious inheritor of Cathy and Heathcliff’s legacy. Wuthering Heights is described as Bella’s favorite book, a text she fervently refers back to (while author Stephanie Meyer labeled Wuthering Heights as an explicit influence on the third book, Eclipse). The series imagined what it would mean if someone you loved wanted to kill you, making the ugly, potent relationship between a relationship’s end and beginning explicit. And through an excessive amount of blood and a moody, blue-tinted filter, the films made this dynamic gory, garish and near. 

Wuthering Heights has a long and prickly onscreen history, affirming and reiterating its cultural staying power. Hollywood has been refitting this story for different formats, diluting and reemphasizing the violence that simmers beneath depending on the era and the audience. For Brontë and her interpreters, the thrill of young love is a sensation to fear rather than yearn for. 

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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