You would be forgiven for wondering if I’d switched to a book blog today, but no, I’m just doing a couple of literary adaptations. I haven’t really gone into literary adaptations as a theme, and it seemed like a good time. Today’s films are:
William Wyler – Wuthering Heights (1939)
David Lean – Great Expectations (1946)
I went with two classics of literature, both of which have been adapted over and over again. I chose two classic films, one that followed the book closely (Great Expectations), and one that attempted to simplify the story for the sake of the film (Wuthering Heights).
This is also my first David Lean film on the blog. I’m a fan of Lean. He’s one of the greatest directors ever, responsible for some of the best films of all-time, Lawrence of Arabia in particular among many others.
But let’s start on the moors.
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Wuthering Heights is the story of Cathy and Heathcliff. Heathcliff is adopted into the family at a young age, and the two fall in love at the small estate named Wuthering Heights on the British moors. But as time goes on, their class differences get in the way, and the culture clash keeps them apart. Cathy gets married, and Heathcliff leaves to find his fortune. He returns successful, and slowly begins to take over the world that rejected him, never forgetting his love for Cathy.
The film is based on a novel by Emily Bronte, published in 1847. I first read the book in high school, like many people, and it’s one of the few classic novels that I’ve revisited over the years. There’s something that grabs me about the story, and it often enters my mind.
The film is directed by William Wyler, who was a very accomplished director(Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, etc), but perhaps not held up as one of the great directors of all time. It also stars Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in one of his early film roles. He was an accomplished stage actor at the time, but this was the film that introduced him to American audiences and made him a star. The film also stars Merle Oberon as Cathy, who we’ve seen before in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
The film begins with a flashback, setting up Heathcliff as the master of Wuthering Heights and another nearby estate, and as hopelessly in love with Cathy. When a lost tenant stays the night and believes he hears a woman named Cathy calling out from the moors, Heathcliff runs out into a snowstorm to find her. The new tenant sits down with Ellen, a servant, who tells him the story of Cathy.
Like the book, the rest of the story is told from her perspective, as she has been with the family the entire time. She begins with the day Heathcliff arrived, when Cathy and her older brother Hindley were children. Cathy and Heathcliff become fast friends, while Hindley is resentful of his new adopted brother. In the book, this is explained by their father seeming to favor Heathcliff, but it’s less clear in the film.
Cathy and Heathcliff spend their days as children exploring their world, and fantasizing about where Heathcliff came from. Cathy imagines he’s a lost prince, and they make a pretend castle out of a rock formation. It becomes their favorite place as their lives go on. They return to it over and over again to talk about how much they love each other as they grow up.
But the father dies, and with Hindley in charge, Heathcliff is relegated to a common servant, cleaning out the stables. He remains for Cathy, but his anger is clear. He swears revenge several times on the people who have wronged him, and because we are in a flashback, we know he has succeeded.
The film does an interesting thing with the different environments in this world. We can start to predict how Cathy will react to Heathcliff based on where they are. At their special place at the rock formation, she loves him deeply, and tells him how she wishes she could stay with him forever. But when she visits The Grange, a nearby estate, she gets a taste of the life she could have, and begins to stray. One night, she and Heathcliff sneak off to watch a formal ball at the property, and get attacked by guard dogs. Cathy is injured, and the Linton’s who live there take her in to heal. Heathcliff is sent away.
Cathy remains there for several weeks, and when she returns she’s different. When before, Heathcliff was the most important person in her life, she now treats him coldly as she expects the people at The Grange would. Edgar Linton, a son of the family, is courting her, and Heathcliff is furious. Cathy begins thinking about the life she could lead, and how Heathcliff might hold her back. At their special place, she still loves him, but at Wuthering Heights, she argues with him and tells him she could never marry him, and at The Grange, he might as well not exist.
When Edgar comes to see Cathy, Heathcliff objects, and they argue. Cathy tells him he’ll only ever be a servant with dirty hands. He slaps her, and in shame, he runs to the stable through the rain. He stares at his hands and punches through a window.
Olivier plays Heathcliff as a dangerous volatile person. But at the same time, we can see why. In private, at their special place, Cathy holds him and asks him to stop time forever so they can always remain together. But when Edgar is involved, she says she loves Heathcliff, but feels she must be with Edgar for her future. She isn’t really even torn between two worlds, she seems almost self-loathing. She sees an opportunity to escape the dirty rundown world of Wuthering Heights, and enter the refined, formal world of The Grange, and she doesn’t seem to care much about how this might affect Heathcliff.
I’m not sure if Wyler intended the character of Cathy to be sympathetic or not, but she doesn’t come across well. The strongest point in her favor is the fact that Heathcliff, a man who appears to care for no one, cares for her deeply. Olivier is able to play both the volatile servant who vows revenge and the gentle devoted lover. Likewise, Merle Oberon is able to play the rift that exists in her character. She knows what she wants, but she also knows what she must do for her life.
After the window scene, we see Cathy talking to Ellen about the fact that Edgar has asked her to marry him. Heathcliff listens nearby, hidden. Ellen pointedly asks about Heathcliff and Cathy says that marrying him would degrade him. But she then says he’s also her soulmate, and the world would end without him. But it is too late, Heathcliff has only heard the first statement, and has galloped off on a horse. Cathy runs after him into the rain, but she can’t find him. He is gone. While recovering from illness, she agrees to marry Edgar.
The film moves quickly here, fast forwarding through time to the day Heathcliff returns as a success. He has been able to buy Wuthering Heights from Hindley, who has built up gambling debts. Heathcliff treats Hindley far better than Hindley ever treated him, but this is even more agonizing for Hindley. Heathcliff makes his kindness a different kind of cruelty. He even allows Hindley to keep a gun he threatened him with because he knows he’s too much of a coward to fire it.
As time goes on, he is able to seduce and marry Isabella, Edgar’s sister, who is disowned. He slowly asserts his power over this world.
At the end of the film, Ellen, who has moved to The Grange with Cathy returns to Wuthering Heights to tell Isabella that Cathy is dying, and she must return. Heathcliff hears and rushes to Cathy’s side. The two rekindle their romance while Heathcliff carries her to the window to see the moors one last time. She dies in his arms.
Returning to Ellen’s story in the present, we learn that Heathcliff has died chasing after the ghost of Cathy. We see two ghostly figures walking along the path to their special place.
There’s a lot to like about this film. The acting is exceptional, the writing is good, and the story is a classic. The film is a classic tragic love story, but with a dark, vengeful protagonist.
The film took some liberties with the book, namely that it only adapted the first half of the book. In the book, after Cathy dies, there is a second generation of characters that we follow, and Heathcliff becomes the patriarch of this family, taking over The Grange as well. This is hinted at in the film, as Lockwood has rented The Grange, and Heathcliff is the landlord there, but never discussed. I actually kind of prefer this version. When the book moves into the second generation of characters, I start to lose a bit of interest, honestly. Things get incredibly complicated with the children and the baggage they carry with them from their parents. And I think the story of Cathy and Heathcliff is the most interesting, and that’s where my focus wants to be.
So for me, having the film end when Cathy dies makes a nice natural ending point for the film. There’s something to be said for staying true to the book, but these are two different mediums, and there are things that can be done in a book that don’t work as well in film, and vice versa. Being honest about this, and trying to make the best possible film I think is the way to go.
The two leads do an excellent job of making their characters believable, but not entirely likable. In most mainstream films, studios have a slavish devotion to make the audience feel like they would want to spend time with the characters. I don’t think I would want to meet either Cathy or Heathcliff, but I’m totally engaged watching their story. In addition, the actors playing young Cathy and Heathcliff are excellent. They manage to lay the groundwork for the romance we are about to witness, without losing what makes them children.
Great Expectations (1946)
Great Expectations is the story of Pip, a young boy working as a blacksmith’s apprentice. He spends his days playing at a mysterious mansion of a rich spinster who wants a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella. Pip falls in love with the cold and witholding Estella, but knows it can’t be because of his station in life. One day, a lawyer comes to the home to tell him he has an anonymous benefactor who has left him a large sum of money and property. Pip takes the opportunity to become a gentleman, hoping to become desirable enough to woo the lady Estella.
The film is directed by David Lean, and is based on the novel by Charles Dickens, published in 1861. I read the novel in high school, and had the good fortune of having a professor in college who was an expert on Dickens, Joss Marsh. I don’t remember if we read the book in her class, but it was certainly my first experience seeing this film.
There’s something magic about this story for me. I don’t know why, but I’m instantly engaged in the story of Pip. Maybe it’s some kind of wish fulfillment, always believing you’re meant for something greater while toiling away in anonymity. Waiting for someone to notice and pull you out of obscurity to do something great.
The film begins with Pip visiting the grave of his parents. He currently lives with his sister and her husband Joe, a blacksmith. While Pip lays flowers on the grave, he is accosted by an escaped convict who threatens Pip if he doesn’t help him. The next day, Pip brings the man food and a file to take off his shackles as requested.
In between, we see a bit of Pip’s home life. Joe is kind and loving, always wanting the best for Pip. His sister is essentially a monster, beating Pip mercilessly for even the slightest misstep. There doesn’t seem to be any redeeming feature of her.
One night soon after, a group of soldiers arrives to hunt the escaped convicts and have Joe repair some shackles. Joe and Pip tag along, and Pip encounters the convict again, who claims he stole the food himself, saving Pip from being blamed.
We see Pip’s kindness here. He risked his own well-being to ensure the convict had food, even though he was threatened, and even talked to the convict. The convict does the honorable thing by taking the full blame himself when he is recaptured.
Soon after, Pip is asked to come to town to play at Miss Havisham’s home. She owns a large mansion in town and has an adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham is a wealthy shut-in and has a reputation for bringing children to her home as a playmate for her daughter.
Pip arrives at the mansion and is met by Estella. She is portrayed as a beautiful but cold young woman, who Pip immediately falls for. She leads him in, and she first takes him to see Miss Havisham.
He enters a room lit only by fire and candlelight. Miss Havisham sits in a chair with wild hair and a dirty dress. For those that aren’t familiar with the story, it adds a strong sense of mystery to the film. Who is this woman? Why is she dressed like this in a dirty room? She claims she hasn’t seen the sun since before Pip was born? What happened?
We later learn that Miss Havisham was in love and to be married. On the day of her wedding, her fiancee sent her a letter saying he couldn’t go through with it and leaving her. In response, she stopped all the clocks, blacked out all the windows, and never left the house again. She never even changed her clothes or allowed anyone to remove the place settings. Her wedding cake still sat on the table. Being an heiress, she was able to keep this up indefinitely. At some point she adopted a daughter, Estella.
Pip continually returns to the mansion, getting to know both Miss Havisham and Estella until he is old enough to begin his apprenticeship with Joe. He reveals that his one dream is to be a gentleman, because he is in love with Estella. The film jumps ahead to a visit from the lawyer, Mr Jagger. He informs Pip(the adult version played by John Mills) that he has an anonymous benefactor who is prepared to leave him a small fortune and some property. The benefactor will remain anonymous until they choose to reveal themselves, and Pip is not to attempt to seek them out.
Pip goes to see Miss Havisham, of course assuming that she is the benefactor. She doesn’t admit it, but she doesn’t deny it. Pip moves to London, and his life changes. He moves in with Herbert Pocket, a young man he met at Miss Havisham’s one day as a child, played by a young Alec Guinness in his first speaking role on film. The film makes good use of montage here to move things along. Pip learns how to become a gentleman, and Herbert helps him, becoming his best friend.
The film is very plot heavy, and Lean doesn’t let up for a second driving forward relentlessly. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but the film feels fast-paced for it’s era. The film follows the book closely, only making a few concessions to streamline things. In the book, there is a character named Orlick who acts as a foil for Pip. He works for Joe in Pip’s youth, then seems to follow him around for the rest of the story. It’s a good cut, as it doesn’t really make sense for a character like this to continually antagonize Pip for years and years. There are other small changes, but the film stays fairly true for the most part.
Estella returns to Pip’s life after being educated in Paris, and he escorts her around town, still in love with her. But of course, she accepts many suitors, among them Bentley Drummle, who Pip particularly hates.
One night, while Pip is reading home alone, a large disheveled man with an eyepatch arrives at his door. Pip is wary, but his manners force him to invite the man in. The man seems very familiar with Pip, and Pip is very uncomfortable. Finally, Pip remembers him, it is the convict he helped when he was a child. The convict tells him that he’s never forgotten Pip’s act of kindness, and further reveals that he is the anonymous benefactor by giving Pip information that only the benefactor could know.
Finlay Currie, who plays Magwitch, the convict is great here. He shows that he’s never lost his edge, as Herbert comes in and Magwitch pulls a knife on him, wary and threatening.
The film shifts to the story of Magwitch. In particular, the fact that he can’t be seen in London, or else he’ll be arrested. He also has enemies nearby who will turn him in if they see him. Pip and Herbert must develop a plan to get him out of the country quietly.
Pip imagines that he will have to leave the country with Magwitch, so he goes to say goodbye to Miss Havisham and Estella. They begin fighting, Pip angry at her that she lead him on about the possibility of being the benefactor. Estella is there, and he calls her out about Drummle as well. She tells him she will marry him, and leaves. He asks Miss Havisham to try to undo whatever she’s done to Estella and storms out. Miss Havisham stands to call out to him, and a coal from the fire is disturbed and rolls onto her dress. It immediately catches fire. She begins to scream. Pip, who has left the room considers not going in, but he returns, seeing Miss Havisham fully engulfed. He bats out the fire with a nearby tablecloth, disturbing the room for the first time in decades. But it’s too late. Miss Havisham dies, and Pip injures his hands in the process.
Pip and Herbert begin practicing their plan. This is where the film breaks down for me a bit. It devotes a lot of time and energy to the preparation of the plot, involving a lot of rowing practice, and boat schedule tracking. It’s honestly just not that interesting, and the film could have done itself a lot of favors by streamlining this section.
In the end, they are caught executing the plan, and Magwitch is sentenced to death, dying before it can be carried out. The film reveals some secrets revolving around Magwitch and his relationships to the other characters, but I’ll leave it to be seen. The film is at it’s strongest during this section, letting the audience get just ahead of the characters.
In the end, Pip returns to his hometown, being cared for by Joe, and he returns to Miss Havisham’s house to see it one last time before it is auctioned off. He finds Estella there, her engagement broken, and well on her way to repeating the mistakes Miss Havisham made. Pip refuses to let her, tearing the coverings off the wall, and bringing her into the light. They both leave the mansion, closing the gate behind them.
This is one of my favorite Lean films, and that’s saying something, considering his filmography. Like I said, I think the film slows down quite a bit once Magwitch reveals himself, but otherwise, the film is exceptional. For whatever reason, as soon as Pip enters that graveyard, I’m fully engaged.
The acting in the film is excellent. John Mills plays the innocence, earnestness, and frustration of Pip throughout the film. And Alec Guinness shows flashes of his future success. The older Estella is played by Valerie Hobson, who is great, but is almost overshadowed by the young version of Estella, played by Jean Simmons, who would go on to have a decades long career, including a starring role in Spartacus.
I just really love this film, and I could ramble on and on, but suffice it to say, it’s an important film, and an excellent literary adaptation.
The Double Feature
These films went great together. Maybe the best pairing I’ve ever done. Both are excellent literary adaptations, and both are adapted from books published in the same era. The films were made close together as well.
The themes in the book are similar too. Both books center on protagonists who are attempting to rise above their station in order to woo the woman they love. However, there is a sharp contrast between Pip and Heathcliff. Heathcliff essentially turns to vengeance when Cathy turns her back on him, but Pip remains kind and open.
And of course there is the different between Cathy and Estella. Cathy professes her love for Heathcliff before deciding she can’t marry him, while Estella goes out of her way to remind Pip that she doesn’t really love him. Great Expectations is ambiguous at the end about the relationship of Pip and Estella. She seems to have turned over a leaf, perhaps being open to loving Pip, but we never find out for sure. We’d have to read the next chapter, which of course, doesn’t exist.
In addition, both works follow the couples from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps there is a lesser theme of the innocence of young love and what happens when it grows older.
I’m sure there are vast tomes exploring the connections between these works, and I’m no expert. But I’m very pleased with these two films as a unit, and I’m sure there’s lots that could be uncovered.
I start teaching next week, so the blog is going to slow down a lot. I’ll have one more post on Monday next week on my regular schedule, and then we’ll move to a weekly post.
So what will the next two films be? I’m going to look at some screwball comedies, among my favorite genre. They will be:
Joel and Ethan Coen – The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Billy Wilder – Some Like It Hot (1959)
My first Coen brothers film, and my first Billy Wilder film. I’ve done some films in this style before, such as All About Love, and Singin’ In The Rain definitely had some screwball aspects, but I think it will be interesting to look at two films from different eras that really embody this genre.
See you then.