Smackdown: Wuthering Heights vs. Jane Eyre

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

To view Wuthering Heights click here and to view Jane Eyre click here.

Currently available on FilmStruck for your streaming pleasure is “The Brontë Sisters,” a modest selection of titles related to the works of England’s beloved novelists of the Romantic era. Included in the series are the classic-film versions of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1939) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1944). While both feature Golden Age stars that mesmerize with magnetism and captivate with charisma, does one film have the edge in capturing the ill-fated relationships and melancholy atmosphere of Gothic Romance?

As written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and directed by William Wyler, the film version of Wuthering Heights emphasizes the doomed romance in Brontë’s story, which was essentially a revenge tale. The orphaned Heathcliff grows up with his adopted family on the moors of Yorkshire alongside manor-born Cathy. The two are inseparable until adulthood when Heathcliff’s lowly station as the stable boy interferes with their bond. He runs off to distant places, where he earns a fortune and becomes a gentleman. In the meantime, Cathy has married Edgar Linton. When Heathcliff returns, he woos and marries Linton’s sister out of revenge. The story is told in flashback by the housekeeper to a neighbor, as a violent snowstorm rages and a ghostly presence lingers.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

Like Wuthering Heights, the film version of Jane Eyre offers doomed romance, a brooding leading man, class prejudice, cruelty to children and the gloomy British countryside, sweetening the heady mix with a dose of madness. Mistreated and abused, little Jane Eyre is sent to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster. When she reaches adulthood, she becomes governess to the ward of Edward Rochester, who, for my money, out-broods the brooding Heathcliff. Rochester falls for the plain but intelligent Jane and proposes marriage. But poor Jane can never catch a break, and she discovers that the creepy noises upstairs at Thornfield Hall are the jealous ravings of Mrs. Rochester, who may be insane but is still married to Edward. Though Jane Eyre does not have the foggy moors and dramatic weather of Wuthering Heights, it compensates with a hellacious fire.

JANE EYRE (1944)

Wuthering Heights boasts Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, who not only broods but smolders. Olivier was returning to Hollywood after a disastrous attempt to conquer the movies earlier in the decade. Eager to create a memorable impression, the drop-dead handsome Olivier worked to make the character dark and dangerous. Apparently, he was very difficult to work with for the cast and crew. Coming directly off his stage experience, he tended to overplay his character, and he was too arrogant to take direction from William Wyler until producer Samuel Goldwyn set him straight. He was also rude to costar Merle Oberon, because he had wanted future wife Vivien Leigh in the role of Cathy, according to some biographers. Whatever trouble he created behind the scenes, it enhanced the tension that existed between Heathcliff and the other characters, particularly Oberon as Cathy. Oberon generally played glamorous, slightly exotic roles, but Cathy was arguably her best performance, particularly when her character was young, feisty and unruly. The cast also included a young David Niven as Linton and Geraldine Fitzgerald as his sister. Thankfully, producer Goldwyn was advised against his desire to change the title, which he didn’t understand, often referring to it as “Withering Heights.” His rejected suggestions of Bring Me the World or The Wild Heart definitely did not have the Romantic ring of the original.

JANE EYRE (1944)

I prefer Oberon to Joan Fontaine, who plays the title character in Jane Eyre. Fontaine had mastered the art of the angelic expression, which, with the quiver of the mouth and a furrow of the brow, could turn into a look of anxiety and fear. Though I have never liked her bird with the broken wing persona, it is used to its best advantage in Jane Eyre. Her quiet, humble demeanor is the perfect contrast to the larger-than-life Orson Welles as Edward Rochester. I don’t think Welles was ever more attractive than he was as Rochester, a man that continues to pay for a mistake he made long ago. Fontaine and Welles have a surprising chemistry, even as their characters restrict themselves to the confines of their social class, which is more appealing than the tension-driven attraction between Heathcliff and Cathy. The supporting cast includes several young actresses at the beginning of their stardom. Elizabeth Taylor is luminous as Jane’s childhood friend Helen, while Peggy Ann Garner plays Jane as a child and Margaret O’Brien is Rochester’s ward Adele.

Robert Stevenson directed Jane Eyre, but I can’t help but wonder if Orson Welles influenced the director, particularly in regard to performances and interpretation of the characters. The screenplay is credited to Stevenson, Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, who was Welles’s producer and partner. Given Houseman and Welles’s talents for interpreting the classics, I think it is surely possible.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

Characters who smolder with pent-up passions, while storms brew and disasters rage, are essential to Gothic Romance no matter the medium. However, in cinematic interpretations, it is the visual design and cinematography that recreate the heavy atmosphere of that hangs over the plot. It is significant that Gregg Toland was the director of photography on Wuthering Heights while George Barnes was the d.p. on Jane Eyre. Toland, who later teamed with Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), is best remembered for the development of deep focus photography, but in Wuthering Heights, it is his depiction of nature that reflects Romanticism. The gray, stormy clouds in the enormous sky suggests the “sublime” in nature, which refers to the idea that nature is both beautiful and treacherous—one of the characteristics of Romantic painters like Casper David Friedrich. Toland had apprenticed under Barnes, who specialized in a kind of soft-edged, low-key lighting to heighten suspense or drama. He was a master at using reflective surfaces and large windows with billowing curtains to create patterns of light and dark within the frame. If you recall Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), you will know what I mean. The low-key lighting of the boarding school in Jane Eyre casts a gray, gloomy pall over the place and its tortured inhabitants, while the deeper shadows in the interior of Thornfield as well as on Rochester’s face tell us that he is hiding something.

Both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre feature the requisite characteristics of Gothic Romance, offer terrific movie stars in dramatic performances, and boast creative teams that did the original novels justice. But, for me, I will choose Jane Eyre the next time I feel the urge to experience “Romance” with a capital “R.” What about you?

Susan Doll

14 Responses Smackdown: Wuthering Heights vs. Jane Eyre
Posted By Arthur : April 3, 2017 12:26 am

Yes, JANE EYRE. Yes, there was spectacular cintematography but I saw little chemistry between Olivier and Oberon in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I would even put REBECCA ahead of WUTHERING HEIGHTS.Olivier and Fontaine in REBECCA echoed the tension filled push and pull of Welles and Fontaine in JANE EYRE.

Posted By Emgee : April 3, 2017 5:58 am

“Fontaine and Welles have a surprising Chemistry.”They certainly didn’t have any offscreen. Fontaine wrote about him: “Ëverything about him was oversize, including his ego.”

Welles was indeed involved in writing the screenplay, casting several Mercury Players and at least tried to co-direct. He also wanted a co-producer credit but didn’t get it.

I prefer Jane Eyre, partly because i do like Joan Fontaine and never had much admiration for Oberon’s acting talents.

Posted By LD : April 3, 2017 9:05 am

Between the two films, I would also choose JANE EYRE. I especially like Barnes’ cinematography. A scene that comes to mind is after Jane accepts Rochester’s proposal and the shot of the storm evoking impending doom. Could Thornfield Hall be any gloomier? The depiction of Jane as a child at Lowood standing on a stool, alone in a large room, is one of the ways used to reveal the abusive nature of the institution. A truly Gothic movie.

Agree about Welles being at his most attractive, striding across the moors, cape flying in the wind, his booming voice. He plays Rochester as a true force of nature, not unlike himself. Olivier is gorgeous and wonderful as Heathcliff. I think it’s interesting that both Heathcliff and Jane were abused children yet took different paths. Jane seems to be the stronger of the two characters, because as much as she loves Rochester, she is not completely ruled by him as Heathcliff is by his love for Cathy. There is really a lot of room for discussion comparing the two films.

This post has put me in the mood to revisit both films, which I have, at the next opportunity.

Posted By EricJ : April 3, 2017 4:07 pm

There were THREE Bronte’ sisters, but Anne’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (also about forbidden romance with a dangerous time-bomb jerk) never merited more than a BBC serial. And even that one I only knew from a Monty Python reference.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/969/969-h/969-h.htm

Not as much similarity between Eyre and Wuthering, though:
Heathcliff is impulsive, and Rochester is brooding, and there’s nothing really in common about the heroine’s romances except for the Bronte’ atmospheres.
I still have to watch either (growing up, my mom was a total Eyre fangirl, and thought the BBC’s Timothy Dalton did it better than the 70′s George C. Scott), but I could see Welles putting his usual Mercury-Theater intensity into the character, while Olivier tended to be an aloof prig in just about every one of his early B/W roles.

Posted By kingrat : April 3, 2017 6:27 pm

The movie version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS considerably simplifies the novel, which has complex narration and is anything but a simple love story. Because Heathcliff (in the novel) uses money to enact his revenge, a Marxist critic like Arnold Kettle loves the novel. The Wyler/Olivier version is much softer than the novel.

The later version with Timothy Dalton was sometimes ridiculed for having Heathcliff be the illegitimate son of Catherine’s father. However, this would explain why Heathcliff was brought to Wuthering Heights.

Posted By Doug : April 3, 2017 6:40 pm

Susan, when I read this:” Apparently, he was very difficult to work with for the cast and crew. Coming directly off his stage experience, he tended to overplay his character, and he was too arrogant to take direction from William Wyler until producer Samuel Goldwyn set him straight.” it brought to mind the second season of the fine Canadian production, “Slings and Arrows”.
A Shakespearean theater is putting on “Macbeth” and has as its lead an arrogant jerque (Montreal spelling) who demands that the production follow HIS direction rather than the Director’s.
If anyone wants to see a great series on the theater, the three seasons of “Slings and Arrows” offer many treats.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 3, 2017 6:42 pm

Doug: Thank you for the suggestion. Sounds interesting. I just read Christopher Plummer’s autobio, and it made me realize how little I know about the theater, and how interesting it is.

Posted By Doug : April 3, 2017 7:32 pm

The first season of “Slings and Arrows” has Rachel McAdams in an early role-there are many familiar faces in the series.

Posted By Stephen Reginald : April 3, 2017 8:01 pm

A very interesting post.

I prefer Wuthering Heights over the novel on which it’s based, but I do like the film version of Jane Eyre. It interprets the novel’s spirit well, I think, even though it leaves out half of the book. According to Joan Fontaine n her autobiography, No Be of Roses, said, Robert Stevenson was in control of the direction of Jane Eyre and that the rumors of Welles co-directing is hogwash. Stevenson was an educated man, who knew the material he was interpreting and had worked with strong personalities in the past.

I think I like both film equally, but for different reasons. I think the black and white cinematography in Jane Eyre is very crisp and sharp. The shadows falling on young Jane like prison bars as she’s being punished makes for a striking image.

I enjoy the crazy romanticism of Wuthering Heights and the anguish of Cathy and Heathcliff. I Think Merle Oberon made a perfect Cathy and find her chemistry with Olivier realistic.

Again, interesting and enjoyable piece. Got me thinking.

Posted By Mitch Farish : April 4, 2017 11:45 pm

The child actors in Jane Eyre were terrific. Elizabeth Taylor was good, but I believe Peggy Ann Garner gave the best performance of anyone in the entire film as young Jane. Her vulnerability makes you ache for her. The child actors in Wuthering Heights were bland to say the least. However, if you love the novel Jane Eyre, you must admit that adult Jane is overwhelmed by Welles’ Rochester. Not Joan Fontaine’s fault; it’s the way the part was written. Nevertheless, I prefer Eyre, not only for the performances and cinematography, but because of Bernard Hermann’s brooding score. It would not be the same film if not for Hermann’s music, although I also like Alfred Newman’s score for Wuthering Heights – just not as much.

Posted By swac44 : April 5, 2017 3:47 pm

I read Wuthering Heights as a teen, as a huge fan of the song by Kate Bush I had to see what inspired the song, and was quite taken by the book (and also some of Bronte’s poetry, which has more of that “to love is to suffer” line of reasoning). Not sure how I’d feel about the book if I went back to it now, but I wasn’t that enamoured of the Wyler film version, I think I liked the version with Timothy Dalton a bit more, which benefits from a great cast of British character actors (Hugh Griffith, Julian Glover, Harry Andrews) and atmospheric direction from Robert “Dr. Phibes” Fuest.

Posted By swac44 : April 5, 2017 3:49 pm

Also, Jane Eyre fans should seek out the prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1993), based on the Jean Rhys novel, which tells the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, memorably played by the gorgeous Karina Lombard.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 7, 2017 10:09 pm

I remember Wide Sargasso Sea, though I have not seen it since it came out. Very exotic and erotic.

Posted By George : April 8, 2017 6:49 pm

WIDE SARGASSO SEA and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE would make an interesting double bill. Val Lewton asked his writers to use “Jane Eyre” as the model for the zombie movie.

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