September 20, 2013

The more revenge I get the greater my appetite for it: How ‘Wuthering Heights’ compares from book to film

After a short interlude, we are continuing our exploration of Wuthering Heights adaptations – this time, the 2009 two-part TV movie starring Tom Hardy as Heathcliff.

And halleluiah, what an adaptation! By dividing the story into two episodes, director Coky Gledroyc allowed for the inclusion of the crucial second generation.

I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see an adaptation that didn’t call it quits half way through the book!

For from omitting the second generation, this adaptation begins with Linton’s arrival at Thrushcross Grange and his immediate summoning to Wuthering Heights. Cathy is distraught that her cousin has left, and the unraveling plot focuses on her discovering her mother’s old family homestead and all of the drama that unfolded before she was born.

Although the order of the scenes is entirely different from the book, the non-linear method of storytelling is very reminiscent of Emily Bronte’s original. (The book also begins with a visitor to Thrushcross Grange, who is then gradually told of the history of the place and all of its former inhabitants.)

By starting with the second generation, Gledroyc secured the audience’s interest in the story early. By revealing how much had been hidden from Cathy before it was explained why, the story was afforded a level of suspense that the novel didn’t have.

I always thought that the characters of Wuthering Heights were be too extreme to be heard or seen. It's one thing to read about a wildly thrashing Catherine, or an angry Heathcliff gnashing his teeth – but to see it played out is anther thing entirely. This adaptation therefore takes the logical step of depicting a much more subdued and likeable version of each character.

Nelly is kinder and gentler, and appears more sympathetic to Catherine. She genuinely grieves when Catherine dies, and still appears to feel her loss many years later.

Young Heathcliff is quiet and shy, and does not set out to intentionally antagonise Hindley. Although Hindley is the aggressor, the audience is made to feel like he was justified in hating Heathcliff when Mr Earshaw showed him such an obvious preference.

Catherine is sweeter, and not much is seen of her tempestuous side. She does act petulantly in front of Edgar, on the afternoon of his visit at the Heights, but her outburst is not as violent in comparison to the book. She is not as uncontrollable or wild. She is actually the most likeable screen version of Catherine that I have seen.

Catherine's daughter, the younger Cathy, is not as spoiled and spirited. She is kinder to Hareton and offers to teach him to read without intentionally ridiculing him. In turn, Hareton is not as uncouth or ignorant. The two then become friends with relative ease, and Nelly is permitted by Heathcliff to live with them at Wuthering Heights.

Even the land is not as wild. The lawns are manicured and green. The wind, even, is not as harsh as the “atmospheric tumult” that is described in the book.

The entire production is expertly cast. Charlotte Riley is beautiful as Catherine, and Andrew Lincoln dashing as Edgar Linton. But the masterstroke was casting Tom Hardy as Heathcliff.

Hardy is harsh and intimidating, yet sexy and appealing. You can see why the women are attracted to Heathcliff, yet at the same time you can understand how they could be repelled by him. You can emphasise with his feelings, while at the same time understand that his reactions are extreme. Such a complicated and enigmatic character would be difficult to pull off, but Hardy manages it perfectly. The timbre of his voice, the set of his jaw, his large, imposing body… It’s easy to say that Tom Hardy is the best incarnation of Heathcliff. And, in this adaptation, he is definitely the most faithfully interpreted character.

It was also pleasing to see the Wuthering Heights house as a majestic building. So many adaptations depict it as a dirty, wind-blown, rickety shack. But the Earnshaws are supposed to be a respectable upper-class family – second in the neighbourhood only to the Lintons. In my mind I always imagined a grand home. Even the balustrades where Hindley would have dropped a young Hareton fitted in with my imagination.

However there are a few areas where the adaptation does strike up some creative differences:

  • Catherine and Heathcliff are seen in the village with Mr Earnshaw. In the book, their time together is confined to rambling in the moors – but in this version their relationship is much more open and public. Heathcliff gifts her a horse, and she calls him “my love”, and is openly affectionate to him in front of her father. Although the lines are blurred due to their filial relationship, Catherine and Heathcliff definitely appear to be an item. She is romantic and affectionate toward him, and even though he is more restrained in public they do share a kiss in the grass and can be seen holding hands. In the novel they are not so open with their feelings.
  • In the film, it is Heathcliff who first raises he issue of his debasement and questions how he and Catherine could ever be together. He wants to run away, and she agrees to go away with him on the morrow – but that is when she is injured at Thrushcross Grange and their plans are delayed. In the book, they never voice any plans to go away together. It is never spoken of. Catherine’s stay at Thrushcross Grange occurs when they are much younger, and does not directly result in her courtship with Egdar Linton, as it does in the film. The events that lead to Catherine’s marriage to Edgar, and Heathcliff’s departure from the Heights, occurs over a much longer stretch of time.
  • Most of the dialogue has been taken straight from the lines of the novel – though at times it is spoken by different characters and in different contexts. For example, Catherine’s speech about being flung from heaven is said directly to Heathcliff late one night inside a church. Catherine also tells Heathcliff of her plans to “aid him to rise” – in the book, these speeches are only ever revealed to Nelly.
  • In the film, Catherine is clearly more concerned over her reputation than she is in the book. In the book, she is largely most concerned with providing for Heathcliff, but in the film she seems more seduced by a life as the area’s most refined lady.
  • In the film you see Edgar and Catherine’s wedding – and it is the same day that Heathcliff returns to the neighbourhood. This also adds an extra element of drama, as Catherine feels that Heathcliff could have prevented the marriage had he wished. Edgar then gives Catherine an ultimatum – she is told to choose between himself and Heathcliff, but the ultimatum is abandoned when Catherine reveals that she is pregnant.
  • Catherine’s sickness was also not brought on deliberately or vindictively – she was truly heartbroken over Heathcliff’s pursuit of Isabella. Her condition then declines after she wanders over the moors in the rain when heavily pregnant.
  • It is Heathcliff that is tormented at night by Catherine’s ghost at the window. Unlike Mr Lockwood who brings the child-like hand down on the glass in fear, Heathcliff grasps for it longingly through the shards of glass.
  • This version also saw it fit to tweak with Heathcliff’s death – apparently having him die of seemingly natural, although unsightly causes in his sleep does not translate well on the screen. He can’t just pass away when he is ready to return to Catherine and when his revenge is complete – his death needs to be given more finality. In this version, Heathcliff takes his own death upon himself, by committing suicide in Catherine’s old room.
  • Rather than ending with Cathy and Hareton happy to continue their lives at Wuthering Heights, and Heathcliff and Catherine’s ghosts haunting the moors – this version ends with Cathy, Hareton and Nelly packing up and leaving Wuthering Heights, with Catherine and Heathcliff’s ghosts left as the houses only occupants.

This is the most satisfying of all of the Wuthering Heights adaptations. I was drawn into the story and compelled by it, and although there were some deviations from the original, they added to the sense of drama and excitement in the story.

Anyone who wishes to understand why Catherine and Heathcliff, two of the most flawed characters in literary history, have earned a reputation for have one of the most passionate and memorable love affairs, would be well served by watching this adaptation.

I’m going to watch it again!

The verdict:

How does the film rate: 4/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation: 5/5

Total: 9/10

Book or Big Screen: Book

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