An Experience with Wuthering Heights

OK, I didn’t plan very well, and I ran out of time at the end of the school year. I really wanted my students to experience Wuthering Heights, but I knew there was no way we had a enough time to read this layered, complex, richly woven tapestry of a novel. So I kind of cheated. We watched what many fans and critics believe to be the film version that most resembles the book, a 1998 Masterpiece Theater production (purchase here) that stars Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady as Heathcliff and Catherine. I have to say after watching it that I agree. The story of Linton, Cathy, and Hareton is intact—the most famous film version ends shortly after Catherine’s death.

My students certainly didn’t complain about viewing the film. I am not sure they necessarily expected to like it, but as we continued to watch, I noticed that many of the students were slowly becoming transfixed by the story. They were making interesting connections (Heathcliff to Frankenstein’s monster—one student said she wanted to feel empathy for both characters, but then they would do something horrible to an innocent person, and she couldn’t feel bad for them anymore). Every once in a while, I saw them pull their genealogy charts out of their notebooks to consult. Three students said they really want to read the book now. When Heathcliff began digging up Catherine, some of my students said, “Mrs. Huff! What is he doing?” I replied, “Exactly what it looks like.” They were horrified. They were rapt. When it ended, two girls in the back applauded.

I am not so foolish as to believe every student in the class liked it, but we did have an excellent discussion about it. I discussed the ingenious structure of the novel and the doubled characters. The students genuinely seemed to enjoy the film, and the only complaint any of them lodged was that the actors seemed a bit too old for their parts (true, but they also agreed that perhaps younger actors might not have had the range to deliver the performances, either).

Showing the film before (or instead of) reading the novel was something of an accident on my part this year, but I am wondering if it might not be a bad idea to show the film before reading the book next year. Students can learn the story through film, and enjoy the technique and craft of the novel perhaps more for knowing and understanding what’s happening. I certainly teach Shakespeare in that way sometimes. I’m just glad my students have had a good experience with Wuthering Heights. At the end of class today, I mentioned to some straggling students that I was glad they’d enjoyed it because I found at least two Facebook groups organized around hatred for Wuthering Heights. One student responded, a completely puzzled look on his face. “Really?  Why?” His tone seemed to say he just couldn’t imagine why anyone would hate that story. YES!

7 thoughts on “An Experience with Wuthering Heights”

  1. Why do we feel guilty about showing the movie first? I have had exactly the same thoughts as you–that perhaps it would be better to show the movie first. I guess the only problem would be the fear that they wouldn't read the book because they think they know it. But then again, how can we know they'll read anything? I'm glad you had this experience.

  2. I've had a few students remark to me that it would be easier for them to understand books if I were to show the film version first. I was never taught that way, but…the more I think about it, that might be the perfect way to hook them in to the book. After having hardly ANY students read To Kill a Mockingbird this year (broke my heart), I've got to try SOMETHING different for next year. *sigh*

  3. And it can certainly be shown in pieces. Maybe show the beginning as a hook to get them into and comfortable with the reading. I ran out of time for Twelfth Night this year before winter break and scrambled to cover the end with the movie version. I'll have to check out your movie suggestion, as I don't love either film version that I have though I do show different scenes for comparisions (Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes versions.)

    My students blogged in the voice of one character. If you have time (ha ha) you could have your students comment:

  4. I always hesitate to show the movie first unless it is very faithful to the book. I tend to find that I cannot enjoy a book as much as I would if I came to it fresh and unencumbered by pre-selected images and interpretations such as are imposed on you by a film. So I don't want to spoil it for a student. On the other hand I too run out of time and am battling with the instantaneous culture of a modern world where for many students the time is simply not available to read or they prefer to do other things. I work in New Zealand and I have to say I am very impressed by the wonderful things you seem to be doing with your classes. I have just discovered e-portfolios as a method of creating some individual reflection and responses by students. They may operate similarly to the interactive notebooks you mention.

    1. Sally, I agree, the images do impose themselves when we watch the film first. This particular version of Wuthering Heights was faithful to the book, but the majority of them aren't. It's a tough decision to make, and I'll have to think hard about it over the summer—I definitely want students to read the novel next year.

  5. I couldn't help but remember the MTV version of Wuthering Heights I accidentally picked up in Blockbuster a couple of years ago. I'll leave it at this: Heathcliff became a rock star.

    Also, concerning using video, I showed my (pretty weak, overall) ninth-graders the first piece of To Kill a Mockingbird first thing. Then, I read the first chapter to them and we discussed it and put it all in historical context. It was my first time using this strategy and worked really well.

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