Adapting Wuthering Heights to the big screen would be a challenge for any filmmaker. The classic novel by Emily Bronte spans forty-odd years and details the lives of two generations in the Earnshaw and Linton households.
The story centres on the depiction of raw human emotion, and instead of pivotal events and plot points to propel the narrative the novel flows through impassioned prolonged speeches and detailed descriptions of the harsh and unforgiving landscape.
Told in a non-linear fashion, the novel begins with the arrival of a Mr Lockwood to Thrushcross Grange, who takes it upon himself to visit his landlord – a Mr Heathcliff at the neighbouring estate, Wuthering Heights.
At Mr Lockwood’s insistence, the housekeeper Ellen Dean (Nelly) soon begins to relay the stories of the prior inhabitants of the two houses. She begins with Mr Heathcliff’s arrival at Wuthering Heights as a young boy, and his blossoming friendship with the young Catherine Earnshaw.
Over the course of the novel, Nelly’s tale continues right through Catherine and Heathcliff’s teenage years, and into their adulthood when Catherine marries Edgar Linton from Thrushcross Grange. After Catherine’s death, the story then continues well into the lives of each of Catherine and Heathcliff’s children.
In bringing the book to the big screen in 2011, writer-director Andrea Arnold was faced with the obvious challenge of how to convincingly cast each of the characters at their various ages – from early childhood, through to adolescence and then into adulthood – and how to condense the sweeping story into one digestible feature-length film.
For Arnold, the answer was to begin with Shannon Beer and Solomon Gaive as the teenage Catherine and Heathcliff, and to end with Kaya Scodelario and James Howson as the relatively young adult-versions of the characters. The film ends with Heathcliff’s reaction to Catherine’s death and the second generation – and therefore the whole second half of the novel – is omitted altogether.
I can see where Arnold was coming from, with only attempting to adapt the first half of the novel. The lore around Wuthering Heights does centre on Catherine and Heathcliff and their passionate and doomed love affair. But by leaving out the rest of the story – of Cathy Linton, Linton Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw, and ultimately of Heathcliff’s demise – the film is barely able to progress to the middle before it ends.
Yes, the love that Heathcliff and Catherine share is all consuming. Their obsession for each other is the aspect of the novel that has the most impact, and is therefore the most remembered. But Wuthering Heights is not Romeo and Juliet – it is not about the kind of selfless love between two people that cannot exist without each other. Wuthering Heights is about a love that is so intense and selfish, and causes so much pain, that it could only ever end with one dead and the other mortally wounded.
Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation is extensively pared back – and not only in content. The film is dark, desolate and completely devoid of colour and music – this absence of colour reminds me of an amateur theatre production of Wuthering Heights on an empty wooden stage. Also stripped bare is the dialogue. As mentioned previously, it is the grand speeches that allow the novel to flow, but in the film the characters are largely silent.
One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is when Catherine confesses to Nelly the depth of her love for Heathcliff, yet admits that she has consented to marry Edgar Linton. Unbeknownst to Catherine, Heathcliff overhears her intention to marry but tragically flees before she declares:
“…he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”
This pivotal scene – the only time when Catherine shows forgivable emotion – is completely missing from the film. The audience never hears her confession, and is therefore deprived of the most powerful and heartfelt speech of the novel.
Although frequently described as rough, wild and surly, Heathcliff too is prone to loudly profess his feelings in the novel. Even in his youth, he exclaims:
“She is so immeasurably superior to them – to everybody on earth, is she not, Nelly?”
In the film, Heathcliff is comparatively dumb and mute. The only time that he admits his feelings is when standing in the drawing room at Thrushcross Grange as an adult. The rest of the film is all long looks and brooding silences, and Heathcliff could easily be mistaken for lamenting over his station in life and his cruel treatment at the hands of Hindley Earnshaw, rather than over his heartbreak.
In the novel, the reader is never under any doubt on the deep connection between Catherine and Heathcliff. As children their time together created a sense of fun and frivolity and it was clear that they completed each other and needed nothing else. In the film, a strange sexual connection between the adolescent couple is established with close-ups of Catherine’s hair and neck and lingering shots of Heathcliff’s quivering hand, but Catherine is more wild than affectionate and Heathcliff seems too morose to care.
Consistent with the novel, the film is told retrospectively, but without the help of Nelly or Mr Lockwood. The film begins with grown-up Heathcliff’s reaction to Catherine’s death. Overcome with grief, he throws himself repeatedly against a wall – an act that is reminiscent of his literary equivalent’s days in the grounds of Thrushcross Grange when he ferociously beats his head against the trunk of a tree. Loosely adapted from the novel, it borrows some familiar ideas and imagery – such as Catherine’s initials etched onto the wall, and the branch scratching against the window.
The film then continues with the back-story of Catherine and Heathcliff’s upbringing and growing bond, until it finally comes full circle and we once again see Heathcliff at his height of grief. It is a powerful scene that conveys the extent of Heathcliff’s obsessive devotion to Catherine.
When Catherine dies, she leaves Heathcliff a broken, traumatised and sadistically twisted man. He spends the rest of the novel reaping havoc on everyone that is left living. But by ending the film with Catherine’s death, the film fails to demonstrate the full extent of Heathcliff’s anger and penchant for revenge. All the audience knows is that he is heartbroken. Without showing the next generation, the audience has no idea that Heathcliff spends the rest of his life plotting revenge. They also have no idea that, against all odds, the original story does have a happy ending.
Some other deviations from the book to the big screen:
- Although uncouth and isolated, the Earnshaws of the book were a respectable land-owning family, considered to be of noble breeding. Wuthering Heights was a country estate – although less grand than Thrushcross Grange, it was considered “the next best in the neighbourhood.” In the book, the family are depicted as poor, simple folk with no illusions of grandeur. The homestead is little more than a dirty shack.
- In the novel, Heathcliff is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy” with a “degree of under-bred pride.” As Heathcliff is an orphan, the reader never learns of his true origins, but there is the implication that he looks exotic and for that reason it would be unseemly for Catherine to associate with him. In the film, Arnold ups the ante and interprets Heathcliff’s dark skin literally in casting Glave and Howson, who are both of Afro-Caribbean descent. For me, it works.
- As mentioned previously, Arnold took liberty with the ages of the characters. In the book Heathcliff arrives when Catherine is six and leaves when she is at womanhood. In the film, it is a teenage Catherine that rambles with Heathcliff on the moors. She still appears to be an adolescent when she accepts Edgar’s marriage proposal. The grown-up Catherine (played with great charisma by Kaya Scodelario) is introduced later.
- In the book, the reader is never under any doubt about Catherine and Heathcliff’s feelings for each other. It is only by their pride and folly, and not through lack of love, that they do not end up together. In the film, it is not so clear – Catherine and Heathcliff do appear to have a strange and slightly inappropriate brother-sister relationship, which is a little unsettling at times (in particular when she begins to lick at his back wounds!), but there is never anything overtly romantic and neither admit their feelings out loud until Heathcliff gruffly admits his feelings as an adult.
- In the book, when Heathcliff returns from his travels, Catherine is giddy with excitement. In the film she is stern and stubbornly unforgiving of his leaving. The two versions of scenes have the biggest contrast – one Catherine is all laughter and the other has a firm control of her feelings.
- Although the film Catherine is sufficiently selfish, the adaptation does not show the full extent of her mad ravings – of how she has the habit of trashing about and tearing at pillows with her teeth, and starving herself to deliberately reach a point of delirium.
- The symbolism of the feathers was a nice touch to the film. In the book, Catherine found a lapwing nest full of tiny skeletons, and makes Heathcliff promise to never shoot one again. In the film, Catherine’s habit of collecting feathers becomes an important part of their childhood bonding and the lapwing becomes a symbol of their closeness.
This adaptation is raw and gritty, and brought down to its roots. Where the novel made grand speeches, the film settled for long looks and silences. Where the book allowed spring to flourish, the film persisted with the wind and the rain.
While Arnold’s adaptation captured the darkness and shades of Wuthering Heights, it neglected its light. Essentially, this is an illiterate version of a literary classic.
How does the film rate? 2/5
How does the film rate as an adaptation? 2/5
Total score: 4/10
Book or Big Screen? Book