Happy birthday, Emily Brontë! She was born this day, July 30, in 1818. While she’s known to have written extensively throughout her life, along with her sisters and brother, Emily only published one book, Wuthering Heights, under the pen name Ellis Bell in 1847. She died a mere year later in 1848, probably of tuberculosis. Contemporary reviews of Emily’s book were mixed, while her sister Charolette’s first novel Jane Eyre, published in the same year, was an immediate critical and commercial success. In the intervening century and then some, Wuthering Heights has become a foundation of gothic romance, and Emily’s poetic verse has been hugely praised.
Literary Setting for Wuthering Heights Movies & TV Adaptions
For all its popularity and classic status, only a handful of movie and TV adaptions have been made of Wuthering Heights. I think part of this is due to the lack of straightforward narrative. The novel is told through a series of narrators, each of which is perhaps less reliable than the other. It opens in 1801 with Mr. Lockwood renting out Thrushcross Grange and meeting Heathcliff (and Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost). Then Lockwood’s housekeeper, Nelly, tells him the story from 30 years before of Heathcliff and Catherine’s life. The whole story encompasses two different generations, Heathcliff and Catherine, and then their children, all framed by an outsider hearing the tale. It’s obviously too much to squeeze into a two-hour movie, though it could work well in a multi-part miniseries. Sadly, few adaptions get the entire thing on screen, and most importantly for Frock Flicks purposes, they rarely use the right costume periods throughout.
The book’s first chapter spells out the date, “1801,” and then you work backwards from that — NOT forwards. Maybe that’s the mistake Hollywood made when they first did Wuthering Heights as a movie? Because everybody else wanted to follow that lead, as you do.
To be accurate to the novel, the main action of the story has to take place from 1780 to 1784. There’s math involved, mostly so the two generations are old enough to marry young but still somewhat realistically. The novel is precisely plotted in time, and any critical edition (or Wikipedia) will show the timeline. Yet the most recent movie and TV versions of Wuthering Heights are costumed for the 1830s-40s (basically, the Brontë Sisters’ time period) or a random period, like Regency.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at these adaptions and their costumes. I don’t claim to have seen every one, but I’ve screened the major film versions and the recent TV miniseries that most people can get access to, so I can evaluate both the accuracy to the novel and the historical accuracy of the costumes.
Costumes in Wuthering Heights Movies & TV Adaptions
Wuthering Heights, 1939
Heathcliff: Laurence Olivier
Catherine: Merle Oberon
Time Period: 1850s
The inaccurate faces that launched a thousand wrong ships! Brooding Olivier and super-pretty Oberon make it through about 16 of Wuthering Heights‘ 35 chapters, barely enough of the story to really call it an adaption. Yet because it was the first big Hollywood telling, many people think that this is the whole thing. The 1939 edition made Wuthering Heights into a simple love-triangle between Heathcliff, Cathy, and Edgar (plus a little girl-fighting between Cathy and Isabelle). Then the heroine dies tragically, beautifully, but love never dies. While this film won an Oscar for Best Black-and-White Cinematography, it’s not winning either literary or costuming accuracy points with me. In addition to the severely truncated story, the costumes look like rejects from Gone With the Wind. Wrong time period entirely and fairly inaccurate for the 1850s too (especially the running-around-the-moors garb — looks like modern 1930s sportswear on Merle Oberon). No internal consistency for costume period either: The opening title credits state that the story is set “100 years ago,” thus around 1839, and then Nelly tells Lockwood the flashback tale, saying it happened “40 years ago,” so about 1799 when Heathcliff arrives at Wuthering Heights as a child. That’d put the main action of the story (when Heathcliff and Cathy are adults) around, say, 1820ish. Not by the looks of it!
Rating: 1 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Wuthering Heights, 1967
Heathcliff: Ian McShane
Catherine: Angela Scoular
Time Period: 18th century
There were apparently a bunch of TV adaptions during the 1950s and 1960s, made by the BBC and in Australia (and maybe one in the U.S. too), but I can’t find any screencaps or video evidence of them. Boo! This four-episode BBC miniseries is the earliest one I could track down. It seems like it’d be long enough to cover the whole novel, yet I’m not clear if the second generation’s story is included, though apparently Lockwood is included with a voiceover. I haven’t seen the series and can only find these images and a few short clips, which indicate the story at least starts in the right time period, so I’ll give it a point for that. Looks very 1960s-ized with the hair and low-budget with the back-lacing and the trims.
Rating: 2 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Wuthering Heights, 1970
Heathcliff: Timothy Dalton
Catherine: Anna Calder-Marshall
Time Period: 18th century
Timothy Dalton is a solid actor in many respects, but this early outing is not his finest work IMO. The actress playing Cathy isn’t spectacular either. The abbreviated script has about the same plot as the 1939 film, minus the flashback framing device of Lockwood. The one thing I like better is Isabella in this Wuthering Heights film adaption; she’s sympathetic, plus she gets the best costumes. Which, however, are all rental stock from a place called “Nelsons,” according to the credits. The costuming is the right period, but it’s very lackluster, and the hair is all late-1960s/early-1970s bouffants on the women. The one real appeal of this version is the authentic locations.
Rating: 2 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Wuthering Heights, 1978
Heathcliff: Ken Hutchison
Catherine: Kay Adshead
Time Period: 18th century
Many reviewers consider this five-episode BBC miniseries to be the most faithful to the novel (which makes sense to me, as it’s around the same time the BBC did the most literary-accurate version of Jane Eyre — the Beeb was on a roll!). I haven’t watched the entire series, but the eps I’ve seen have excellent Brontë-inspired dialog. And yet … the costuming is not quite right. The rougher garb for running around the moors is only vaguely period (check out that renfaire bodice, and I’ll bet there’s elastic in the blouse’s sleeves and neckline). But the fancier hanging’-with-the-Lintons costumes seem a bit more historically accurate. Bummer because many of these mid-1970s BBC productions did have excellent costumes, even if they were all filmed on soundstages.
Rating: 3 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, 1992
Heathcliff: Ralph Fiennes
Catherine: Juliette Binoche
Time Period: 1780s-1801
It’s pretty amazing that this 105-minute film adaption of Wuthering Heights manages to include all the major plot points of the novel, from Lockwood to the second generation, and does it in the right period costumes! Even better, those costumes are by Oscar-winning designer James Acheson (Dangerous Liaisons, Restoration, The Last Emperor), so they’re quite lovely — and very stripey; even Catherine’s running-on-the-moors gowns have subtle stripes in the fabrics. The only costuming downside is the hair. Cathy has bangs most of the times, and the Edgar’s hair is, like, totally bitchin’ for a surfer dude, but not the 18th century. This is my favorite version of the novel on screen because it gets the right balance between telling enough of the complete story and getting the costuming periods correct. I’d love a miniseries that used every bit of the novel plus had this high level of costuming (and better wigs) — but I’m not holding my breath.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Wuthering Heights, 1998
Heathcliff: Robert Cavanah
Catherine: Orla Brady
Time Period: 1780s
Another miniseries adaption, this one brought to us by London Weekend Television and PBS Masterpiece Theatre. While the show does an admirable job of using the entire novel — Lockwood through second generation — the costuming throughout the entire tale is pretty much 1780s, and this is especially noticeable on the women’s gowns. Young Catherine Linton wears the same style of clothes as her mother, Cathy Earnshaw, and her aunt Isabelle Linton. They’re all nice period dresses, but you’d think there’d be some change over time. Also, young Cathy has an outrageous curly blond afro wig that is wack. That aside, this is the only Wuthering Heights adaption on film or TV I’ve seen that gives full and proper attention to the second generation’s love story, which is a really nice touch. Also, I was pleased to see Peter Davison, aka the Fifth Doctor Who, playing Mr. Lockwood — although he’s used only at the beginning to introduce the tale, and there’s no actual framing device.
Rating: 4 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Wuthering Heights, 2009
Heathcliff: Tom Hardy
Catherine: Charlotte Riley
Time Period: 1815-1848
This is probably the most popular adaption of Wuthering Heights, thanks to rakish Tom Hardy. I’m not arguing his appeal. But the historical period is wrongity-wrong. The ITV / PBS Masterpiece Classic producers made the obvious mistake of setting the story in Emily Brontë’s lifetime — maybe they wanted to reuse some Regency gowns from a Jane Austen flick? Dunno. Also, when it’s not 1810s, the costumes are weak, random ye oldey-timey. The worst dressed is, unfortunately Catherine the Elder, whose “wild child” outfit is simply a fitted jacket, full skirt, and flowing hair. Then she wears prissy Regency gowns when she’s married to Edgar. Meh. While this two-part miniseries does a decent job covering both generations (but skipping Lockwood), this is very much a tale of Heathcliff’s revenge. That further makes Tom Hardy the central feature of this version, and he’s quite good. But the romance and poetry are downplayed in favor of the angry, vindictive streak that runs through the novel.
Rating: 3 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Wuthering Heights, 2011
Heathcliff: James Howson
Catherine: Kaya Scodelario
Time Period: 1810s
Modern directors, hear my plea: It is not “edgy” or “daring” to film movies in 75% low lighting or let the actors mumble all of their lines. Also, this “adaption” of Wuthering Heights might actually use less of the novel than any other movie or TV version yet. The similarities it bears to the Emily Brontë novel can be summed up as: Heathcliff is adopted and develops an obsession with Cathy (unclear if the feelings are mutual in this film), Cathy’s father dies and her brother is a dick to everyone, Cathy marries Edgar, Cathy dies, Heathcliff is sad. That’s it. Almost none of the novel’s language is included, with barely an allusion to any of the famous speeches. Perhaps this is due to the fact that these characters speak about 20 lines of dialog in the entire movie. The thing I have the least problem with is casting a black actor as Heathcliff — the book calls him “a dark-skinned gipsy” at most, so he’s not exactly of African descent, Brontë is simply trying to show a contrast between the emotionally dark and turbulent Heathcliff and the pale, blond, quiet, complacent Lintons. This film made that metaphor literal, fine, whatever, it’s the movie’s smallest crime against against accuracy. The costumes are a bigger problem because they’re just so sad and dreary, when you can even see them in the gloom and darkness. Most of the time, Cathy runs around in random jackets and long, muddy-hemmed skirts. When she marries Edgar, she wears “nice” 1810s dresses that still look bedraggled. And the hair, not only is there a complete and utter lack of hairpins, everyone in the moors are in desperate need of some conditioner because the flyaway situation is out of control.
Rating: 1 out of 5 ghostly Cathys haunting you
Are you a Brontë fan? What’s your favorite movie or TV adaption of Wuthering Heights?
The Fiennes/Binoche version is the only one I can bear to watch. They truly make me believe the characters.
Agreed! The full novel’s story & the right period for the costumes.
I can never read or watch a Bronte piece (ANY of them, for crying out loud) without ending up feeling bummed. The men are all such dicks and the women such victims that I pity the poor Bronte sisters (whose life with Dad and brother was apparently no picnic). Jane Eyre is the pluckiest of the Bronte heroines and Rochester the best of a bad bunch of male leads, but even he’s so frickin’ manipulative with poor Jane that I want to smack him upside the head.
Give me Jane Austen anytime.
Hah! I hear that. The Brontes were all writing Gothic novels in the 18th-c. style, whereas Austen wrote genteel contemporary novels of manners. VERY different things. The Gothic genre is not meant to be realistic at all — it’s metaphorical & far more about the language of the storytelling. Which also makes it harder to translate onto film.
Read the complete book and saw the 1939 film in 1957 when I was a very sheltered 15 year old. Was entranced by both– such passion!
Try Villette! It’s a much more mature novel and the love in it ends up being real and good. It’s also more modern than any of the other Bronte novels, and pretty deep. It can be a bit tough early on when Lucy Snowe is going through a pretty extreme depression, but she and the book both blossom out beautifully. And parts of it are pretty funny (the pink dress! The NUN!). The guy seems like an asshole, but is actually a really good, flawed, human. No real sociopaths in this one- win!
I did roll my eyes every time Snowe went off on Catholicism (can you say “staunch Protestant”?) but in the end I found that pretty funny too. The love story is also informed by Charlotte Bronte’s own (mostly un-requited?) passion when she worked as an English teacher abroad, so that gave it some interest as well.
To be fair to some of the above, I don’t think it quite qualifies as a mistake or inaccuracy if they’re *deliberately* changing the setting – Jane Eyre gets the same treatment most of the time, being put into the 1830s-1840s to be contemporary with the Brontes. There seems to be a sense that the torrid drama and angst fits better with the Romantic period (and its gothicky dress) than as an historical-historical drama.
When I think about it, it seems like the Brontes didn’t do much with the historical settings, did they? Hmm.
Well, the Bronte sister are very consciously writing in the 18th-c. gothic novel tradition; that’s what they had read & were deeply influenced by. Both Wuthering Heights & Jane Eyre evoke common themes & motifs from that genre (from supernatural elements like ghosts & the fae to mysterious character origins to ‘coincidental’ meetings & over-hearings), all placing the novels in the earlier period.
True. I suppose the issue is that nowadays the 18th century gothic fiction is forgotten, and dark themes, dark houses, and borderline/full supernatural happenings are associated with the Victorian era – in part because of their life dates, but also the contemporary writings of authors like Collins and Dickens, and then more modern authors setting their own gothic stories in the 19th century …
That said, were the Brontes essentially doing the same thing, given that many 18th century gothic romances were set historically themselves, in the 16th or 17th centuries?
I’ve seen only four versions of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. Ironically, my favorite one remains the 1939 version, in which only half of the novel was adapted and set in the mid 19th century.
Well, I love this article, but I’m pretty sure Heathcliff being dark isn’t simply figurative. Nellie tells young Heathcliff this at some point, to console him: “Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?” The suggestion that he might be royalty isn’t supposed to be taken seriously of course, but the exchange indicates that Heathcliff looked different enough from these people to be seen as foreign, definitely not European, “of another race” and therefore “savage”. It’s also telling that early in his life he’s often pejoratively called a “gypsy”. Though what Emily Bronte had in mind probably wasn’t Heathcliff actually being of African descent, I find it understandable and even interesting for a film to explore the implied racial issues further. I haven’t actually seen the film so can’t comment on its quality, but portraying Heathcliff as a black man seems legit to me as an interpretation.
I am writing to inform the author Trystan L. Bass that there is no such word as ‘adaption’.
The word is adaptation. Please check any Concise Oxford.
Same diff & dating to 1615 accd to Mirriam Webster :p
Fantastic site! Congrats! I share this post with my FB La Casa Victoriana.
Can’t count how many times I have seen the 2011 version and still can’t get enough from it!
I love it’s raw, no-nonsense atmosphere. And yes, so in love with the shabby coats and dresses as long as the eye can see…
That’s my Emily!
I found another version and watching it now on TCM!!
1958 teleplay for the DuPont Show of the Month, with Richard Burton as Heathcliff (very smoldering and hunky) and Rosemary Harris as Cathy (yes, the same that was in the early Spiderman films).
It’s not really FF worthy, the costumes are very generically awful, as well as the hair, but the acting is good if a bit melodramatic. They attempt an 1820-30s look I am guessing? They seem to hit all the tragic plot points, but leave off the third generation as all other versions seem to.
-Patty Duke plays the young Cathy.
-It’s fun to watch the DuPont commercials in the breaks where they use their tag line “better living through chemistry” which would go on to be hacked by the counter culture in the late 60s.
Here is a link to a New Yorker article about it:
Ok love this post Jane Eyre + Wuthering Heights are some of my favorite books but I think the perfect adaptation of them is far from reach more for WH than Jane (1973+1983+2011 are really good) but seeing a really big bunch of Bronte adaptations I must accept that the 1992+1998+1978 are fine plus the 1950’s adaptations you couldn’t find I saw 1950 (Charlton Heston) 1956(Italian miniseries) and seems the 1958 version reappeared and I think the 1953 version still got photos around as the 1962 version so you might like to give it a try
Talked too much and said too little in fact my favorite versions are the 2004 Italian miniseries which is Stuuuuuning and the 1968 French version starring Genevieve Casile (1975 Marie Antoinette) as the two Cathys she’s my(French) spirit animal when it comes to period dramas and this version is beautiful as well
I’m sad there’s no evaluation of Kate Bush’s music video for “Wuthering Heights!” I want to know what score it would get on the “Ghostly Cathys haunting you” scale.
I like the Fiennes version well enough (i haven’t seen Hardy all the way through) but i don’t really like its take on Cathy and i think because its a film the pacing tally suffers. You don’t have much time to process the complexity of emotion and from what i remember Cathy never seems (to me) to show any true attachment to Heathcliff. It seemed almost like she did everything she did at all times (even as children) to string him along and hurt him and i don’t think Cathy is that cerebral