The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Wuthering Heights

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article It’s an easy line to trot out, the truism that the book is always better than the film. It is a handy piece of effete snobbery which has all the ease of the readily agreed upon without the inconvenient necessity of evidence. Aside from the fact that such comparisons are in themselves intrinsically silly, there are many examples of cinematic adaptations which exceeed their source material: Doctor Zhivago (1965), Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1925, 1959), and more recently No Country for Old Men (2007), There Will Be Blood (2007), Fight Club (1999), Lord of the Rings (2001-3), and on and on. Of course, all these are debatable, but there is even a maxim in Hollywood circles that bad books make great films. What is vulgar, simplistic and laughable in a novel can be rendered sublime in the spectacle of cinema. Likewise, however, it can be said that great books can make rotten films (Catch 22 [1970]), or simply can’t be made into films at all. Attempts to adapt War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Ulysses, or The Naked Lunch founder on the source material’s intrinsic difficulty. At the moment Joe Wright is making Anna Karenina with Keira Knightley and Jude Law. I don’t want to be sniffy, and hope I’m proved wrong, but I suspect the book is simply too big.

Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Since that time it has been filmed a handful of times by directors like William Wyler (1939) and Luis Bunuel (1954), as well as having been made into countless television adaptations. Bernard Hermann based an opera on the work, and Cliff Richard produced and starred in a musical called Heathcliff. Kate Bush achieved fame with her debut single based on the Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon film adaptation. And yet, for all this creative fecundity, Wuthering Heights remains a difficult, uneasy novel which does not give itself easily to adaptation. If Jane Eyre is The Beatles of early Victorian fiction, then Brontë’s book is The Stones. It does not warm the heart, nor sit comfortably in the popular imagination. It is the awkward sister. Why?

Partly because the story line is complicated and demanding, often wilfully confusing. Names are repeated between different characters. There is an uncanny doubling, an amoral ambiguity, a violence, and a whiff of the satanic. ‘A compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors,’ is how Graham’s Lady Magazine described it at the time of publication. Equally, on top of how complicated the story actually is, spanning two generations, it is also viewed through a number of different perspectives. The narrator, Mr. Lockwood, picks up snatches of narratives written in the margins of a Bible and then is told almost everything by the compromised figure of the servant Nelly Dean, who pretty much takes the biscuit as an unreliable narrator, getting herself involved in the action in a number of surprising and significant ways.

Then there are the characters themselves. Although we might find Jane Eyre annoying at times, and Rochester a tad off-putting to begin with, in the end they are fairly conventional Victorian heroes, winning our sympathy and admiration as their novel progresses and they overcome difficulties. In Wuthering Heights it is fair to say that there is almost no character that you can like, per se. Lockwood is an enfeebled man of conventional morals who literally cannot stand the atmosphere of this wild place and spends practically the whole novel in bed. The aforementioned Nelly is compromised at key moments. And the romantic heroes, Cathy and Heathcliff, are at heart selfish, destructive, and ultimately frightening people, willing to hang out to dry anyone who comes within the gravitational pull of their grand passion.

And yet the book is a marvel. Possibly one of my favourite novels, as much as that sentence can make any sort of sense. The niggling irksome quality is what drives the reader back to the book to try to make sense of it. There is no straightforward message. The reader of Jane Eyre can walk away with the idea that patient virtuous endeavour will reap rewards in the end. Wuthering Heights allows no such take-way aphorism, except perhaps ‘don’t take in waifs from Liverpool’. But even that facetiously intended maxim doesn’t really make sense since Heathcliff’s arrival doesn’t ruin anything: the family itself is already fairly rotten. The inability to provide a message is in a way the message; there are passions which cannot be contained, or normalised.

The first step to filming the book has usually been to cut it in half. Make it Cathy and Heathcliff and leave the second generation buried by tactful silence. This has the effect of accommodating the passion in a relatively comfortable paradigm of tragedy. They loved; she died; he was sad. We lose Heathcliff’s vengeance and with it the full extent of his willingness to destroy people, including his own flesh and blood, and to render the world a mausoleum to his own bloody-minded spite. The Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche adaptation in 1992 was notable for its willingness to tell the whole tale, Lockwood and all, but its obvious desire to turn a Yorkshire farmhouse into a Transylvanian castle rendered the exercise dubious on other grounds.

Andrea Arnold’s film does cut the second half of the novel. It suggests some of what comes later in giving Heathcliff a necrophiliac tryst with Cathy, but really the film leaves Heathcliff dangling. Maybe he’ll spend the rest of his life running into a wall (literally). Incidentally, this scene, which opens the film, highlights one of the problems of depicting passion: from the outside a great passion can just look silly. This isn’t really an incidental point. There is something absurd in Heathcliff and Cathy’s love, which is only forbidden - remember - by themselves. Nobody stands in their way or obstructs them. In the words of the Arctic Monkeys, ‘there are no Montagues or Capulets’, just them. It is their own obstinate idiocy, combined with Cathy’s social ambition, which brings so much grief upon them.

Arnold’s experience on the film seems to have been pretty negative, judging by the press conference I attended in Venice. I asked her whether she’d consider returning to the story to complete it with a part two; her ‘No’ was categorical. The production history of the film does not appear to have been a happy one. The project went through at least two other directors and was originally intended to be a star vehicle with Natalie Portman / Lindsay Lohan / Gemma Arterton / Abbie Cornish in the role of Catherine and Michael Fassbender / Ed Westwick as Heathcliff. Arnold’s decision to ditch this high profile approach for unknown faces was in keeping with the documentary feel with which Robbie Ryan has photographed the film.

I stated in my short review that Wuthering Heights felt more like an essay than an adaptation. I think this reading stands up, though I would reiterate that it is a brilliant essay. The film distances itself from the source material all the way through, but in a way that only makes sense if you know the source material. It is pugnacious and argumentative, and not only in its casting of a black Heathcliff. But the originality and intelligence of some of the ideas are let down in execution. The casting of non-professionals is an unfortunate example of this. Non-professionals might be fresh and raw and in-your-face, but they might also not be very good.

Although the film has a tenacious and tactile sense of place, it has no geography. The two locations of the novel go intentionally unnamed in the film: Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. We are suspended in landscape; drenched in nature. At one point young Heathcliff and Cathy wrestle in the mud and Cathy is pressed into the earth. On one level they’re just mucking about, but we are also supposed to feel that they are essentially one with the landscape - in contrast to religion and wider society, and to some extent conventional narrative. Although Ryan deserves praise for his photography, the documentary feel sometimes swerves from Realism to David Attenborough. The story is often stopped as we look out of windows, or gaze at moths, or beetles.

This yearning after beauty in unexpected places is becoming a feature of Arnold’s cinema. The same was true of Fish Tank (2009), where a council estate was caught in late summer light at odd angles and with a sense of rediscovery. In some ways, this sets Arnold apart as a director from the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who see the landscape of their characters with the same matter-of-factness as the characters themselves. Ultimately, the suspicion clings that the only people who hymn the unexpected beauty of the housing estate are those who don’t have to live there. And so it is, in a sense, with Wuthering Heights. The camera’s intimacy is compromised by its occasional tourism.

This Alternate Take was published on January 06, 2012.

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