By Ken Tucker
Updated December 02, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

When we all started reading about the public’s sudden revulsion against tacky, tabloid TV movies (isn’t it great the way the media keeps you up to date on what repulses you?), who would have thought the backlash would lead to prime-time adaptations of both Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte in a single week? The premieres of The Return of the Native and Wuthering Heights must be giving PBS conniptions: Just when public broadcasting has sunk to programming the same schlock as commercial networks — right down to junky game shows — the networks turn around and start putting 19th-century novels on the air, something even Masterpiece Theatre thinks is pretty squaresville these days.

Of these two new versions of classy melodramas, The Return of the Native has the edge. If the impulse to convert century-old page-turners into overwrought costume dramas is essentially middlebrow, this Hallmark Hall of Fame production is definitely upper-middlebrow: well acted by nonsuperstars in a faithful adaptation. Need the Cliffs Notes to jog your memory on this one? Hardy’s tale recounts the plight of Eustacia Vye, bored to tears by her life with her grandfather in the remote English countryside. (”Life is so drab on this blasted heath,” mutters Eustacia, played by Catherine Zeta Jones.)

Soon Eustacia marries Clym Yeobright (Ray Stevenson), an ambitious fellow who promises to take Eustacia away from her glum village to enjoy the bright lights of Paris. But Clym never sees those bright lights — he goes blind — and Eustacia is torn between her devotion to her husband and the attention being paid to her by the handsome Damon Wildeve (Clive Owen).

Director Jack Gold (Stones for Ibarra) knows that Thomas Hardy’s transcendent intensity would explode the small screen if he was too faithful to the book, so he tones things down and elicits a particularly subtle performance from Jones.

By contrast, the British makers of TNT’s Wuthering Heights have pulled out all the emotional stops. While it’s unlikely that many Americans remember the plot of The Return of the Native, many of us carry around the story of Wuthering Heights in our heads because the memory of the great 1939 William Wyler-directed movie, with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, remains vivid. Add to that the fact that there have been at least a half dozen TV versions of Wuthering, and you can understand why the Brits felt their version had to go a bit over the top to distinguish itself.

Here, Ralph Fiennes (Quiz Show, Schindler’s List) stars as the broody Heathcliff, and Juliette Binoche (Damage) is the sensitive-souled Cathy. In the ’39 film, Olivier embodied Heathcliff’s wayward passion while wearing hair that looked like a dyed-black tea cozy; for the ’90s, Fiennes opts for shoulder-length, windblown tresses that have the disconcerting effect of making him a dead ringer for Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans. (I kept expecting to see a few Native Americans in war paint pop out from those dank English moors.)

The French Binoche has little trouble convincing us she is the English Cathy. Together, Fiennes and Binoche do a good job of playing Bronte’s doomed lovers, even if the script by Ann Devlin encourages Fiennes to ham it up in his portrayal of a penniless orphan who grows into a wealthy but bitter recluse.

TNT is making much of the fact that the ’39 movie dealt with only the first half of Bronte’s novel, and that Devlin’s adaptation is more complete and faithful to the book. But this only adds more detail and action to a story whose greatest effects come from the emotions of its characters. Wyler’s impressionistic film captured the spirit of Bronte much more than does the plodding realism deployed here by director Peter Kosminsky. This Wuthering is fine if you want to use it as a study aid for English class, but if you seek to be entertained, return to the Native. The Return of the Native: B+ Wuthering Heights: B-