Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Taming of Wuthering Heights

Oscilloscope Laboratories
Kaya Scodelario in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011)

There are movies we watch with a particular kind of divided attention: half following the action on screen, half trying to imagine the pitch meeting at which a producer was persuaded that the film would be (profitably) similar to a recent film that did well at the box office. During the many dull passages—lengthy shots of fluttering insects and of birds wheeling over the scenic British countryside—in the latest Wuthering Heights, directed by the British filmmaker Andrea Arnold and now being released in the United States, I found myself wondering how anyone could have been convinced that what the culture needed was yet another cinematic treatment of Emily Brontë’s novel. If one counts feature films, TV mini-series, Luis Buñuel’s Abismos de Pasión (1954), and Kiju Yoshida’s Arashi Ga Oka (1988), audiences have had more than twenty opportunities to watch Brontë’s doomed lovers race across the wind-swept moors.

Then, about an hour into the newest version, it struck me: it’s Twilight! Transplanted from the rainy Pacific Northwest to even rainier rural England, deftly substituting a ghost for a vampire, the film contains many of the elements that made the screen version of Stephenie Meyer’s novel such a hit: repressed adolescent passion, self-denial, questions of masculinity, sexual competition, renunciation, romance thwarted by restrictive tribal loyalties. That’s how I would have pitched the film, and the fact that I was thinking of it while watching Heathcliff and Catherine break each other’s hearts was an indication of Arnold’s failure to capture a fraction of Brontë’s genius.

The most recent adaptation of the 1847 novel is by no means the worst; it may be hard to find one sillier than the MTV Wuthering Heights, a 2003 musical in which a tow-headed Heathcliff is brought home by Dad in a pick-up truck. But none of the versions I’ve seen have been very good. In William Wyler’s 1939 production, the bouncy theatricality of Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff and Merle Oberon’s histrionic Cathy fail utterly to convey the chemistry of Brontë’s characters. The clips from Abismos de Pasión I’ve watched are weirdly fascinating, but its creepy necrophilia and gothic Catholicism owe more to Buñuel than to Brontë. The 1992 Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights—the title recalls the Hollywood joke about Mary Shelley trying to get her name taken off the picture when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appeared in 1994—includes the second half of the novel, which the new film and most other versions omit. Yet whatever benefit this rare fidelity to the book generates was subverted by the distractions of the outrageous black fright wig intended to make Ralph Fiennes’s Heathcliff look like a gypsy. Like most previous adaptations, Arnold’s film ends soon after Cathy’s death. We see Heathcliff gaining possession of Wuthering Heights, but are spared the novel’s disturbing portrayal of a second generation—Cathy’s daughter and Heathcliff’s son—living in squalid circumstances, bullied and tyrannized by Heathcliff.

United Artists/Plexus Film
Heathcliff and Catherine as portrayed in the Wyler and Buñuel adaptations

All these filmmakers must have understood that bringing Wuthering Heights to the screen posed daunting challenges. But it was not in their interests to acknowledge that those aspects of the novel that make it so tricky to film—its wild originality, its immensely intricate narrative structure, its hyper-romanticism masquerading as naturalism, the dialogue that makes its characters seem always to be shouting even when they are conversing—are precisely what makes the book so great. Almost invariably, the novel’s most affecting scenes—Catherine’s description of the dream in which she looks down on Wuthering Heights from heaven and begs to be sent back to earth, the verbose and eloquent argument that erupts between Catherine and Heathcliff on her deathbed—seem more than slightly ludicrous when acted out in front of a camera.

One can imagine that the prospect of adapting the novel might appeal to film executives who had never read it but only the “coverage.” Presumably, this summary would emphasize the doomed love between two strong, memorable characters but would omit the poetry of Bronte’s language and the excesses of emotion and behavior that are entirely persuasive on the page but less convincing on the screen. One thinks of the ways in which the numerous film versions of Jane Eyre have retained the romance between Mr. Rochester and the impecunious governess, but sacrificed what is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the novel: its frank portrayal of female rage and class resentment.

Some of the problems involved in bringing Wuthering Heights to the screen result from its sheer formal complexity that makes the book at once more bizarre and more plausible than a straightforward narrative might be. Readers will recall that the book is structured as a series of interlocking stories within stories: The first narrator is a gentleman named Mr. Lockwood who takes up lodging at Thrushcross Grange; obliged by a storm to spend the night at nearby Wuthering Heights, he reads a passage from Catherine Earnshaw’s journal, then has a dream of—or a visitation from—her plaintive ghost, hovering outside the window and pleading to be admitted. Curious about this strange place and its inhabitants, he extracts their history—a narrative that makes up the body of the novel—from the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, who is perhaps the only sensible member of the household and thus the most qualified to give Lockwood (and the reader) a reliable account of the high drama that has occurred there.

Toho-Towa Company/Cofimedia
Yusaku Matsuda as Onimaru, the character based on Heathcliff in Arashi Ga Oka (1988)

Also included in the novel is a letter from Isabella Linton, the sister of Catherine’s husband, describing her disastrous marriage to Heathcliff; a long penultimate section in which Heathcliff’s moral degeneration accelerates and in which Catherine’s daughter and Heathcliff’s son reenact, in even more dismal circumstances, their parents’ misery; and finally a coda in which Mr. Lockwood returns to hear (again from Nelly) how the story has turned out.

But these obstacles of form might be relatively simple to overcome (presumably a film could dispense with Lockwood and Nelly, though much would be lost). By contrast, the content of the book—the nature of its characters, and the lethal cocktail of psychology, destiny, and coincidence that Emily Brontë has brewed to ensure her protagonists’ downfall—is exceedingly difficult to capture. If Heathcliff and Cathy were filmed as Brontë wrote them, the result would be a love story without a conventional hero or a heroine. Their arrogance, willfulness, brutality, and self-destructive impulsivity are diluted and tamed into something more familiar and acceptable to the cinema audience: lovers who are flawed but likeable, troubled but sympathetic, more sinned against than sinning.

Filmed versions of the novel have attempted to normalize a relationship that is anything but normal. Perhaps overstating his case, but not by much, Georges Bataille wrote that Emily Brontë “has a profound experience of the abyss of Evil. Though few people could have been more severe, more courageous or more proper, she fathomed the very depths of Evil.” In the novel, Heathcliff is indeed an outcast, abandoned on the streets of Liverpool until Catherine’s father, Mr. Earnshaw, rescues him; he is subsequently mistreated by his adoptive brother, Hindley. But he is never the purely innocent victim, the sweetly brooding romantic rebel: the Hollywood hero. He is charismatic but intensely unpleasant, as is Catherine, and their mutual attraction is based partly on their inability or unwillingness to conform to the dictates of civilized society—social forms that go beyond good manners to include such “ordinary” moral qualities as kindness, generosity, and conscience. By the end of the novel, Heathcliff has become a monster—a lovelorn, heartbroken monster, but a monster nonetheless.

In what is perhaps the most talked-about aspect of Arnold’s adaptation, Heathcliff’s racial identity has been altered; he is no longer a gypsy, but is black. His child self, as played by a sweetly winning Solomon Glave, patiently endures the racist insults to which he is subjected. When as an adult, played by James Howson, he returns to Wuthering Heights, he has become not only more prosperous but more aggressive; we see him striking the hapless Isabella. But his transformation is here made to follow a basic principle of current psychology—the abused becomes the abuser—rather than to emerge from the depths of selfishness, calculated vengefulness, rage, and bitterness that Emily Brontë plumbed with such uncompromising bravery. Throughout the novel, the words “Satan” “evil” and “infernal” occur frequently enough to suggest the existence of forces in the universe—and in the psyche—that are more than simple legacies of one’s childhood sufferings. We can thank Bronte’s narrator, Nelly Dean, for keeping us apprised of the fact that, while Hindley’s aggression toward Heathcliff is enough “to make a fiend of a saint” the boy himself seems “possessed of something diaboloical…[he] became daily more notable for savage sullenness and ferocity.” Nearing his own death, Heathcliff tells Nelly, “I believe you think me a fiend…something too horrible to live under a decent roof.” And by that point in the novel, having witnessed his treatment of his son and Caherine’s daughter, we may be inclined to agree with him.

Throughout, the film involves more violence than any previous English-language version; with his shaved head, canine snarl, and fondness for profanity, Hindley Earnshaw, as played by Lee Shaw, resembles one of the thuggish droogs in A Clockwork Orange. Every few minutes, he is either beating or whipping the innocent Heathcliff. But the ramping up of the physical cruelty only emphasizes the extent to which the psychological brutality that gives the novel its essence and its originality has been lost. In the novel, Heathcliff tells Catherine how much he despises Isabella Linton even as he is courting her: “You’d hear of odd things if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face: the most ordinary would be painting on its white the colors of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two…” In response, Catherine rants for almost a page (“I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own. That will be a prompt way of finishing all, when I am pushed to extremity!”) and proceeds to throw a fit—“dashing her head against the arm of the sofa, grinding her teeth”—that leaves her with blood on her lips.

In her adaptation, Arnold uses cinematic techniques designed to add verisimilitude. For the interior shots, she has opted for “natural” lighting, so that it is often hard to see what is transpiring on screen. Many of the action sequences are shot with a hand-held camera and from the perspective of the characters; when they ride across the moors, the horse’s mane appears to be blowing back, irritatingly, in our faces. Yet all this only underscores the fact that, despite the trappings of naturalism, the novel is in no way realistic; from the first appearance of Catherine’s ghost to the death of Heathcliff, the book more closely resembles a fever dream than a work of literary realism. And that, too, is part of its beauty and its achievement.

Paramount Pictures
Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1992)

Like much great literature, Wuthering Heights changes and ages along with the reader; encountering it at sixteen is a very different experience from rereading it at sixty. And precisely because of its mysteriousness, because we are ultimately unable to explain exactly why the book so moves and haunts us, it takes on an intense and even talismanic importance for its fans. In the 1997 Mike Leigh film Career Girls, a pair of quirky university students divines the future and seeks advice about the present by opening Wuthering Heights at random to read a sentence that they parse for its oracular significance. It is impossible to imagine contemporary young people searching the DVD of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights for wisdom, guidance, or prognostication.

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