The Way You Look Tonight

Movies can sometimes teach novelists a few tricks about character development. For example, there's the job of the casting director.

A casting director's greatest challenge is to cast a film that is based on a famous novel. For each of the novel's characters, the casting director must find an actor who can satisfy hordes of fans who know exactly what each character is supposed to look like. In addition to looking the part, any actor under consideration has to be talented enough to create the right character emotionally.

I recently watched the Ralph Fiennes /Juliette Binoche version of Wuthering Heights.

Verdict: Juliette Binoche is a very good Catherine Earnshaw. Ralph Fiennes is an excellent actor, but, in my opinion, totally wrong for Heathcliff.

My favorite Heathcliff ever was Timothy Dalton. This may surprise those who remember him from the James Bond series, in which *he* was the actor who was totally wrong for the part. Nonetheless, I really like Dalton's version of Wuthering Heights (from 1970, can you believe it?).

The problem with Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff is that he is too fine-boned and also too intellectual, which makes Heathcliff come across as a calculating sociopath. In contrast, Timothy Dalton is over six feet tall and broad-chested, with a rough-hewn look that seems right for a young man of low birth. Dalton successfully conveys the destructive passion that drives Heathcliff, who is the Captain Ahab of romance novels.
Timothy Dalton

When Ralph Fiennes's Heathcliff curses Cathy after her death, he delivers the classic lines in a fairly calm, restrained way. You can imagine that his delivery doesn't quite work for lines of this emotional magnitude:

"Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you - haunt me then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe - I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!"

If ever words were meant to be raved and groaned, these are the words. And Timothy Dalton raved and groaned them very convincingly.

Look at the picture of Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff on the video cover at the top of this post. He looks quite pretty with his long hair and big eyes. Pretty just won't work for Bronte's Heathcliff.

As writers, we have to give our characters the bodies that match their types. If Melville had made Captain Ahab four feet tall and possessed of a high, piping voice, Moby Dick would be a satire instead of a tragedy. Sometimes, a deliberate contrast between physical type and inner truth (such as a very handsome man with a sadistic or cowardly soul) can be highly effective. But a writer will leach the power from her work if she creates a purposeless disjunction between appearance and personality, like the miscasting of Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff.

If, like me, you create some of your characters according to the demands of the plot, then you have to think like a casting director. If you make your heroine too voluptuous, will her beauty overwhelm her intelligence in the eyes of your reader? Or, might it be an interesting twist if her striking looks mean that she has to struggle to be taken seriously by both men and women?

Can you remember a movie in which a famous character from a novel was played by an actor who didn't fit the part?