“Wuthering Heights” from Page to Screen: A Gritty Take on a Beloved Classic

There have been many adaptations of Emily Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights including a Juliette Binoche-Ralph Fiennes period piece, an MTV contemporary adaptation, and the definitive 1939 adaptation starring Laurence Olivier. So when Andrea Arnold decided to tackle this novel, she wanted to make sure she had a unique take on the story. And her take is definitely a novel one: she focuses the film solely on Heathcliff.

The dark and moody new adaptation of Wuthering Heights also puts an emphasis on the “wuthering.” Writer-director Andrea Arnold includes extensive footage of the natural world around the Heights to represent the beauty and brutality of nature—both in the world and within the characters. She also explores human nature by telling this entire story from the point of view of Heathcliff.

When young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) is brought to the Heights by Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), he is immediately treated like an outsider not just because he comes from the streets but also because of the dark color of his skin. He is raised as a laborer by the Earnshaw’s and suffers extreme beatings from racist Hindley Earnshaw (Lee Shaw). Heathcliff’s only sense of comfort and refuge comes from Hindley’s younger sister Catherine (Shannon Beer). As children they form an intense emotional bond that follows them through their lives.

The first half of the film follows these young children and the foundation of their relationship with each other and the other characters in the area. Arnold’s goal in this adaptation was to stay as true to the original text as possible, so she cast young actors to play the younger forms of these classic characters. Both Glave and Beer are making their acting debut in this film, and they perfectly embody the intensity of these characters (and the intense chemistry that these characters have together).

When they have grown into young adults, Kaya Scodelario (as older Catherine) and James Howson (as older Heathcliff—another newcomer) continue with the intensity of these dark characters. Scodelario easily takes to the manipulative nature of Cathy as she pits her weak husband, Edgar Linton (James Northcote), against the vicious Heathcliff. Howson captures the brooding and yearning in Heathcliff while also drawing out his brutality, which he inflicts on naive Isabella Linton (Nichola Burley).

Wuthering Heights is always considered a tragic tale of undying love, but Arnold and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed sought to emphasize the dark side of these characters. Catherine and Heathcliff inflict suffering upon each other and those around them to cope with the pain they feel from being separated. These characters are so cruel it’s hard to feel sympathy for them.

So often, the adaptations of Wuthering Heights give great emphasis to Catherine; yet in the novel she is little more than a supporting character. Heights truly reads as a history of Heathcliff as told by the servant Nelly Dean (played by Simone Jackson in the film). Arnold draws the story of her film from the first half of the book, which follows teenaged Heathcliff and Cathy (the second half of the books follows the next generation of Lintons and how Heathcliff manipulates them into being like him and Cathy). While Nelly is Cathy’s maid (and later Cathy’s daughter’s maid), even her story is constructed around Heathcliff’s involvement in their lives. Thus it is a wonder that there hasn’t been a Heathcliff-centric film before.

Heathcliff becomes the one that audiences are more likely to sympathize with because they get new insight into this character’s psyche. Arnold explores the nature vs. nurture argument in this film. After being beaten, Heathcliff turns his rage on the only thing that’s smaller than him—animals. There is so much rage within him as he slits that sheep’s throat or break’s the rabbit’s neck—his animal brutality is a motif that continues with him into young adulthood (and even little Hareton Earnshaw emulates the cruelty he sees in Heathcliff). But is Heathcliff cruel because that’s what is buried within him, or has the brutality he suffered at the hands of the Earnshaws turned him into that cruel person.

Arnold and Hetreed have done some major interpretative work to draw out Heathcliff’s psyche. They take single paragraphs narrated by Nelly and turn them into 5-minute scenes that express Heathcliff’s story. After seeing this film it is difficult not to feel the pain that he suffers before becoming the cruel creature we are at first introduced to—which makes rereading Wuthering Heights a truly new experience.

Also, while the new adaptation omits the next generation of Lintons—Catherine 2.0 and weak Linton—they manage to capture the thematic concept that Bronte instilled in the second half of the novel.  Between his feud with Edgar and his control of the Heights, Heathcliff manipulates these children into reenacting the romantic tragedy he went through as a teenager. With Hareton’s parents dead, Heathcliff raises Hareton to be a cruel and uncivilized Mini-Me. Arnold and Hetreed embody this theme in showing Hareton’s increasing cruelty to animals mimicking Heathcliff’s own cruelty, giving viewers just a snippet of what these characters’ fates will be.

The moodiness of the film is further illustrated by the lack of musical score.  Sound designer Nicholas Becker uses the diegetic—or natural—sounds as the film’s “soundtrack.” The howling of the wind, the creaking of the trees, the yelping of the dogs, even the wetness of the kisses—all of these increase the intensity and tone of the film. This, combined with images of the barren and cruel—and often striking—landscape, truly pulls the audience into the story and world of Wuthering Heights.

This adaptation brings new insight into the story of Wuthering Heights and will urge viewers to pick up the book and read it again (and I urge you to do so, as well), searching for this intense and dark world that they missed when they read it in high school. Arnold set out to create a new take on this beloved classic, and that’s exactly what she has done. The film has a slow pace that emphasizes that this is about more than just plot; this film is a character study of the classic figure of Heathcliff. Fans of Emily Bronte’s novel—or fans of period pieces in general—should enjoy this nuanced exploration of the novel and its themes.

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