What a welcome coincidence to see new screen adaptations of the Brontë sisters’ classics within the same year that Stephanie Meyer (who acknowledges a debt to Emily’s novel with her Twilight saga) finally has to phase her bestseller franchise out of theaters. According to literary editor Boyd Tonkin, it seems the Brontë sisters have somehow “fought back” against the mad popularity of today’s Mormon-helmed misogyny masquerading as “vanilla vampirism” and “teenage Gothic-lite romance”, for these fresh adaptations “announce a Brontë revival fiercely relevant to an age in which women in fiction are as patronized and marginalized as ever.” Ironically, the enduring character complexity and genuinely torrid romance of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was totally lost on Meyer in her inspirational process, for her unmotivated Bella Swan never comes close to resembling the decisive Catherine Earnshaw, but only registers as little more than a primly passive lady-in-waiting heroine of, say, a Jane Austen novel.
Jane Austen somehow set the surefire formula for what a successful adaptation should be in 1995 with the enormous success of both Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Penny Marshall’s Clueless (a full makeover of Emma) that introduced a new wave of interest in her work on film. Screen adaptations of classic literature (Shakespeare included) have fallen into two traps since: unimaginative mimicry with a “modern edge” or complete decontextualization wrapped in a new romantic comedy, both of which cater to our contemporary literary laziness. Either way, most fail to truly revive an old text and merely succeed in airing out its staleness. Their focus stays limited upon the text as such (in 1996, Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet obsessively adhered to its Shakespearian dialect) and not on attempts to transcend antiquities towards an original approach to be felt, understood, or even related to.
Andrea Arnold, on the other hand, has the audacity to transform Wuthering Heights using her signature 1.33:1 aspect ratio (a square frame opposed to the now standard horizontally long frame of 2.35:1) forcing a reorientation of landscape that focuses upon tangibly rich, proximate details and not the pastoral, untouchable distance. There is nothing ornate about this film in the traditional sense for it strips down the superficial trimmings of makeup, costume, art direction, and completely does away with score, the very things that can inadvertently mummify a period piece. The organic, diagetic sounds of roaring winds, relentless rain, and heavy, lustful breathing make up its soundtrack instead, reinforcing the abundant and abrasive descriptors in Brontë’s novel over its expositional dialogue. Arnold drastically pares down all character discourse to little more than a few scathing words that do not indicate any kind of classic literary arrogance in prose. Her characters (especially the hateful and racist Hindley) speak a dialect more akin with the English working-class people of her previous films than the discursive posturing of 19th century literature.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is partly interested in England’s oppressed proletariat striving for and fighting against social status while brazenly expressing their amorous and contemptuous feelings in the wild moors of their country’s avoided terrain. It has endured as a rather unclassifiable classic that parallels the same raw and confrontational approach of Arnold’s films, along with an affinity for the hostile consequences of obsessive youthful love (purely out of spite, the teenage heroine in Arnold’s previous film nearly killed her adulterous flame’s young daughter). True to her more deliberate working-class focus, Arnold makes a decision to depict Catherine Earnshaw and her single-parent family much poorer than the novel does. Brontë establishes their lifestyle and farmhouse as modest but not in near ruin as it appears in Arnold’s film, a dark, empty, and cold dwelling that seems to dampen the Earnshaws more than their surrounding rain-soaked desolation.
Arnold seems to be drawing a classic counterpart to the small government housing projects in Fish Tank (2009) in which its own single-parent working-class family live just as cramped as the Earnshaws. Privacy is a spatial, bourgeois luxury in both of Arnold’s films, but more importantly, it shows the socioeconomic cause for the borderline domestic violence in both households. Specific to Wuthering Heights, Arnold illustrates one of the novel’s main themes of violence breeding violence through the very young Hareton (the son of the ultra-violent Hindley) who learns to hang their dogs’ young offspring by their collars on their farmhouse’s wooden gates. Also a result of Hindley’s aggression is, of course, Heathcliff, an embittered victim of abuse and oppression who will go on to repeat force and manipulation in seeking vengeance upon Hindley, Edgar (Catherine’s chosen husband while a heartbroken Heathcliff had deserted her), and in eloping with Isabella (Edgar’s sister) out of spite for Edgar’s marriage to Catherine.
The most notable revision in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is her choice to make Heathcliff of African descent, his lighter complexion suggesting he is the product of British colonialism and rape. Heathcliff’s sudden arrival out of nowhere in both the novel and Arnold’s film does not offer any background on his origins or position in society, and since the novel’s publication in 1847, Brontë’s “dark-skinned gypsy” has remained one of the most confounding literary figures to assess. Arnold seizes this opportunity to give further historical cause for his infamously gruff demeanor resulting from racist, systematic mistreatment well before he’s found wandering the moors by Mr. Earnshaw. In a move that further humanizes his character, Arnold also chooses to align the story’s unfolding with Heathcliff’s point-of-view, a move that subtly highlights an empathetic view of a notoriously invulnerable character. Heathcliff as a black man in 19th century England further reveals the correlation between classism and racism for his love for Catherine is all the more inexpressible considering how threatening an interracial union would be in the 19th century.
Despite these revisions, the romantic enigma central to Wuthering Heights is fully accomplished and preserved by young newcomers Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave (and later Kaya Scodelario and James Howson), a smart casting decision to thrust a pair of unknowns into a harshly prototypical world that renders their unfamiliarity and animalistic tenderness all the more authentic. The gnarled affection between Catherine and Heathcliff finds the perfect place to seed in the wet, organic moors of England, a locale Arnold is careful to keep unadorned and coarsely lush. She reveals the landscape in small bursts tightly aligned with Catherine and Heathcliff’s revelatory moments of attraction in aurally rich close-ups of his muddied hands catching at her windswept hair and her own running across the raised scars on his flagellated back. Most notably, Arnold uses a precise shot of a lone thistle in bloom on the moor as a metaphor for their relationship, an alluring fuschia-hued flower needing a resilience of thorns to survive the social (and now racial) circumstances determined to extinguish it.
Hopefully proposing a new, unorthodox route to the course of adaptation with her shining example of what it can achieve, Andrea Arnold’s take on Wuthering Heights is firmly consistent with her strengths, style, and entirely her own. It is a bold and remarkably minimal re-imagining that embraces the corporeal realm of affection and contempt to effectively resuscitate the heart of its source material to a torrential beat. There is no filmmaker better suited to reinterpret a classic literary work as equally uninterested in well-behaved women sipping tea in 19th century England’s manicured gardens than the UK’s own Arnold. In many ways, she can be seen as the cinematic equivalent to Emily Brontë herself, for both reveal emotional truths around the crueler side of desire and affection.