Note: if you can “spoil” the plot of a 165 year-old novel, I have done it below, so reader beware: I discuss the novel as if you’ve read it.
I have such a love-hate relationship with literary adaptations; whenever one comes out, I practically swoon with anticipation, all the while declaring how bad it will be, and usually leave the theater cursing the script and director for yet another mistake. However, recently there were two literary adaptations I saw at the Independent Film Festival Boston that I wanted to write about because the adaptations, while not what I would have imagined myself, were interesting in certain ways. Wuthering Heights directed by Andrea Arnold is one of those two films (the other is Trishna, directed by Michael Winterbottom, which will have its own post). Here’s the trailer:
As you can see from the trailer, the most obviously striking thing about the film is that Arnold cast a black actor (technically two, one child and one adult) to play Heathcliff. This casting should not be a surprise to anyone who has read the book closely or postcolonial-influenced criticism of the book, for the novel marks Heathcliff as ambiguously Other; when Mr. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff home, he is described as a “gipsy brat” speaking “gibberish that nobody could understand,” while later Nelly, trying to comfort Heathcliff, says to him, “Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen?” Obviously, casting a black actor makes these ambiguities explicit, but I applaud Arnold for being the first director I know of to cast a non-white actor in the role, something that should have been considered for a long time.
Having a black actor in the role adds a level of complexity to Heathcliff’s place in the world into which he’s been dropped. Early in the film, Nelly Dean roughly removes Heathcliff’s shirt in order to bathe him, revealing whipping scars on his back. The effect of this on me as a viewer was to experience a sympathy that was, frankly, more intense than what I remember feeling for him when I read the book (which could be a false memory, as I will explain in a moment). Suddenly the strange circumstances of Heathcliff’s arrival were put into a larger context, and my empathy for him was irreversible.
One of the most interesting changes Arnold makes in this adaptation builds on this empathetic reaction to Heathcliff: the entire film is actually filtered through his perspective. A casual viewer might think that the film is from an omniscient point of view because the choices are subtle, and indeed we do not get any additional information about Heathcliff before he arrives at Wuthering Heights or what he does while he is gone, but the perspective is his. For instance, we are meant to feel with him his closeness to Cathy when he rides behind her on a horse; her hair is practically blowing into our eyes. More fundamental—and bold—is how this plays out in the scene when he leaves upon hearing Cathy say it would degrade her to marry him. He leaves after she says that, and the camera follows him out of the house. Therefore, we never hear Cathy say what is arguably the most famous line in the novel: “I AM Heathcliff.” He didn’t hear her say this, and therefore we do not, either. We never hear her monologue to Nelly about how they have the same soul, or how she would refuse to become Edgar’s wife if it meant giving Heathcliff up. What are we to make of this choice? I like it because it’s bold, but do we lose something in the process? It does succeed in making Cathy – in my opinion, one of the nastiest and most confusing characters in all of British literature – even more inscrutable.
I have stated to friends many times that I feel Wuthering Heights is an unfilmable novel. It wouldn’t seem to be, since it has a fairly straightforward plot, but the emotions are so heightened and the plot so over-the-top that it always translates into ridiculousness onscreen. Added to this is the fact that I think Wuthering Heights is perhaps the most misunderstood novel of all time, because it’s always discussed as a beautiful and tragic love story, when I’ve always thought it’s really a story of violent, dysfunctional people being horrible to each other. The latter is more interesting anyway.
The weird thing is, that suddenly with this new adaptation, I almost bought it as a love story. That is, in the sense that Cathy is the only person who’s ever nice or affectionate to Heathcliff, so of course he’s crazy about her. And obviously when she takes that away, he can’t accept it.
But nevertheless, one area in which the film succeeds is that it (generally speaking) emphasizes the violence and dysfunction of these relationships, while still making me understand them a bit more. But the bigger success is how wordless the film was. Yes, the actors spoke to each other, and for the most part, they seem to have uttered lines taken directly from the book. But overall the emphasis was cinematic: the movie focused on visuals, the play of light, and natural sounds. (Some people found the sound of the wind on the microphone to be overdone, but I loved it, and now after having visited the moors in and near Haworth, I can tell you: it’s really windy there!) This is what an adaptation should be: a visual interpretation of the book, not a slavish adherence to its dialogue.
All this said, there were some major flaws in the film. For instance, the child actors were far and away more riveting and convincing than the way-too-pretty adult actors, who didn’t seem to want to get their hands dirty with their roles. There was so much time spent on establishing the feel of the film in the beginning that the middle and end of the story felt rushed and unsatisfying. The shortness of the second part of the movie means that Heathcliff ends up seeming more like a victim, or at least understandable, than he does in the book. In the novel, what he does to Isabella and the various children (Hareton, Linton, and Cathy’s daughter) is inexcusable; he becomes a tyrant and a sadistic abuser. I have mixed feelings about this aspect; on the one hand, the film version makes for a more relatable character, but on the other hand, it runs the risk of making the mistake Isabella makes: thinking that Heathcliff could be saved.
(Incidentally, my sense that Heathcliff is relatable and empathetic in this adaptation may be unique to me. After writing this, I browsed the IMDB reviews, and many people complained that none of the characters were likeable or relatable. This I found amusing, since I felt the characters in the novel were far worse!)
In any case, clearly I found it to be a thought-provoking experience, and I would recommend seeing the new (2011) adaption of Wuthering Heights.