Nothing is as convincing an argument for books over celluloid than adaptations of mid-19th century classics. Bonnets and heaving bosoms are much better imagined than seen. Yet from William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation to Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1954 version to the Ralph Fiennes tearjerker, Wuthering Heights has been made and remade. Heathcliff howls through the years. Cathy weeps through the ages. And now comes another, the eighteenth adaptation of the novel, by Andrea Arnold.
Arnold avoids that Tom Hardy-sized pit into which so many previous attempts have fallen. Emily Brontë tells us Heathcliff is dark and brooding and that love’s a pain, and yet there’s more gauze and tenderness in the typical adaptation than in a burn unit. Not so in Arnold’s film. “When I wrote the script, I wept on a daily basis—a lot. It’s so awful what happens to him,” she says. “And that was a real feeling, coming from a real place.” Highly regarded for her 2003 Oscar-winning short film, Wasp, and her 2009 dark drama, Fish Tank, Arnold’s métier is grim and gritty tales of lost youths struggling for something beyond their grasp.
And so, in this Wuthering Heights, she completely elides the second half of the novel. Instead, she focuses on the childhood relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff and their tumultuous young adult years. “There’s something in all of us that longs for our childhood,” she explains of the radical choice. “That’s the place where Heathcliff was able to make a connection to someone and, when he loses that, it is to that place he must return.”
Oh yeah, and Heathcliff is black. Though that might seem equally radical, in fact, it hews closer to the original text than, say, Ralph Fiennes. “As I read Emily Brontë’s description of Heathcliff,” says Arnold, “it made me realize that he wasn’t necessarily white.” In casting newcomers Solomon Glave and James Howson as her Heathcliffs, young and older, Arnold cannily embodies his exoticism. “Emily Brontë felt different from her society, and, since Heathcliff is Emily, I wanted him to embody that truth as well.”
Though Cathy (played by Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff are still in the throes of puberty—or perhaps because they’re in the throes of puberty—there is little talking and a lot of hanging out, all with an undercurrent of sexual tension. Heathcliff sniffs Cathy’s hair longingly as he holds her while they ride through the country on horseback. She licks his wounds after her thuggish brother, Hindley, beats him up. But Cathy can be tough. When she meets Heathcliff she spits on him. “She’s actually quite cruel,” says Arnold, “but they make this connection and even though everything was harsh, he had her.”
It’s not all roses on the moor, and Wuthering Heights at its heart is as harrowing as Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird or D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel. Arnold’s version brings you into the gloaming, where pain, love, and longing are hard to tell apart.