Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, her third feature after Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), quickly establishes itself as a highly personalised take on the material. Those familiar with Arnold’s earlier films may also perceive common threads that link Wuthering Heights with them. Somehow, as impossible as it is in practice, it’s tempting to try to comprehend Wuthering Heights purely in these terms. It would perhaps be more instructive to view it as an Andrea Arnold film first and an adaptation second.
Faithfulness is a fraught concept when dealing with cinematic adaptations of novels. Since it was published in 1847 (after a reasonable 50-year wait for cinema to be invented), there have been seven film adaptations of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Even including the numerous radio and television adaptations, the vast majority cannot be considered ‘faithful’ to the letter of the text, let alone the structure or in the visual realisation of the descriptive elements. Arguably the most celebrated, William Wyler’s 1939 take, diverges from the novel in several ways, including shifting the time period and excising the latter section of the novel completely.
It’s the prerogative of the adaptor to foreground or suppress elements of the original work in service of their own vision. Numerous modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays illustrate this point clearly – if the original has themes and/or content that are universal or at least current, the process can be beneficial for both audiences and the original text. On the other hand, unabridged ‘faithful’ adaptations often suffer from adhering too closely to the particulars of the original while failing to adapt to the requirements of the new medium. Films, it must be noted, are not books and cannot be made, experienced or appreciated in the same way. As Arnold has said of Wuthering Heights, “It’s such a complex book that I just had to pick out the things that had resonance to me, while still honouring the work as a whole.”1
The film places a crucial emphasis on the formative early lives of the characters, so that half of the running time is taken up with only one third of the novel. To distil the essence of a 30-year, generation-spanning story, Arnold therefore has focussed on the elemental aspects of the story, the passions and frustrations from which Brontë’s saga emerges. The film is so visually-driven that the character’s more articulate moments, when the dialogue is closest to that of the novel, are somehow the least convincing. Arnold’s Heathcliff is far less verbose than in earlier depictions, his pride and cunning subdued in favour of a more primal drive. When Cathy returns from the Lintons, dressed in the manner of a lady, Heathcliff reacts badly (and mistakenly) to Cathy’s greeting. In the novel, he is indignant, exclaiming, “I shall not stand to be laughed at. I shall not bear it!” This line in the film becomes, “Why are you laughing at me?” and the delivery implies less wounded pride and more uncomprehending hurt, quickly tempered with reflexive aggression.
The film’s visual language is exponentially richer, with the novel’s second generation story and its ‘cruelty begets cruelty’ theme subtly coded in the moment Hindley’s son Hareton mimics Heathcliff’s mistreatment of a dog. In the latter half of the film, the frequent flashbacks to the early lives of the protagonists indicate how fatally the die is cast for both Heathcliff and Cathy far better than any dialogue – rather than fond reminiscences, they are a reminder that the characters are bound by and to a past they can never return to. Arnold’s mise-en-scene also transforms the stately home (however imposing) familiar from previous adaptations into a dark and claustrophobic farm holding. Here, Arnold’s approach once more strains against the material, as the run-down Wuthering Heights seems at odds with the means and standing that the story dictates the Earnshaw family should have.
Ahead of its release, much has been made of Arnold’s digressions from the source material. Commentators have noted liberties taken with the language (e.g. the racial epithets spat at Heathcliff and his own impassioned dismissal of the Lintons), the depictions of animal cruelty and, perhaps most of all, the casting of black actors (Solomon Glave and James Howson) in the role of Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s racial origin is never explicitly defined in the novel, although with close analysis, the best guess is that he is of Romany descent. He is physically described in such a variety of ways that truly, only his otherness is clearly defined. Evidently, it is this element that informed Arnold’s approach. As she has said, “In the end, I decided that what I wanted to honour was his difference.”2 The director has also speculated that, were she to approach the material again, she might cast a woman in the role.
Therefore, while Arnold’s social realist approach cannot fail but re-emphasise the novel’s themes of racial intolerance and class division, her unremitting focus is on Heathcliff himself and the inchoate rage he shares with Fish Tank’s Mia (Katie Jarvis). The film opens, as does Fish Tank, with its protagonist engaged in his habitual solitude. While Mia dances in the empty flat she uses to practice her routine, the grown Heathcliff haunts Cathy’s old room, throwing himself at the walls in despair.
Both characters’ emotional volatility is matched only by their inability to articulate themselves. Just as Fish Tank privileged Mia’s point of view, following her as she roamed alone through claustrophobic corridors, rooms and busy but desolate estates, Wuthering Heights focuses on the experience of Heathcliff. Throughout the film, the camera follows Heathcliff, often peering with him at scenes he is excluded from. As in Red Road, the central protagonist struggles against an enforced isolation that they are also complicit in.
Brontë concludes her story with Heathcliff’s death and the notion that he at least is now ‘with’ Cathy. Arnold rejects even such an illusory resolution. “In my version, I have to leave him suspended. It’s unresolved – you almost feel that he’s still out there, wandering the moors.”3 A tiny, post-credits clip reprises Cathy’s famous line, “I am Heathcliff”, a final directorial flourish inviting the perhaps over-analytical viewer to take a closer look at Arnold’s empathy with her protagonist.
Sean Welsh, November 2011
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Andrea Arnold, Guardian interview, 31/10/2011.