Monica Mehta
February 06, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Maybe MTV is trying to make up for sucking kids away from books. Why else would the music net turn Emily Bronte’s gothic novel into a mediocre modern-day soap opera (PG-13, 88 mins., 2003, Paramount)? Moody Catherine has become sun-kissed Cate (Traffic’s Erika Christensen), swarthy stable boy Heathcliff is hunky musician Heath (Grind’s Mike Vogel), and the cottage on the moors is ”The Heights,” a seaside lighthouse. But remember the nuanced, restrained passion of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon (unrated, 104 mins., 1939, HBO), or the fiery chemistry of Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche (PG, 107 mins., 1992, Paramount)? Such subtlety has given way to graceless clunkers like ”Sometimes love isn’t enough to hold you; sometimes it’s so strong it drives you away.” Instead of focusing on the inseparability of two kindred spirits, the film glorifies a senseless girl stuck between two obsessed, violent boys. Christensen, all tearful theatrics, could learn from Oberon’s complex Catherine — part civilized, stately lady; part fragile, reckless girl. And Vogel’s Kurt Cobain imitation can’t match Fiennes’ wild-eyed devilishness. On the other hand, certain departures from the original — such as when Heath beats the bejesus out of his abusive adopted brother — prove strangely liberating. 2003: D 1992: B 1939: A-

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