Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights: my thoughts.
I recently went to see Wuthering Heights’ new adaptation by Andrea Arnold. This was, in fact, the first adaptation I had seen, ever, so my only point of reference is the actual novel. Opinions are to be taken with the appropriate amount of salt in whichever form you prefer.
I guess one measure of how good any adaptation of Wuthering Heights is, would be how difficult one can make up one’s mind about it. I will elaborate on this in a post about the book itself, but Wuthering Heights always makes me stop and think: did I actually enjoy this? If not pleasant, was it moving? If pleasant, what does that say about me? In the novel, there are a number of things which I unquestionably love and a (greater) number that puzzle me. So, too, did I feel about the movie.
Let’s start with the easy bits: what I loved.
The scenery, for one thing, was gorgeous. The photography, too, was all gorgeous. I kept thinking: “poster! poster! poster!” which is certainly a good thing. As an aside, the actual poster? Yes. Good.
I liked the acting and the actors, for the most part - adult Cathy is properly gorgeous, Young Cathy appropriately wild.
I don’t feel strongly either way about Arnold’s casting Heathcliff. There is supposedly some controversy because she cast two black actors. The rationale was that this difference in etnicity creates an even stronger barrier (but then, so did Heathcliff’s being allegedly of gypsy descent) and make it more relatable to modern-day audiences. I’m pretty sure we can all understand what racism is with Gypsy Heathcliff, but I don’t really have an issue with the casting decision. I didn’t particularly like or dislike it.
I did actively dislike the fact that Arnold cut some of the most harrowing speeches in the source material. As Heathcliff leaves the room, we hear Cathy’s “more myself than I am” trailing off. No more of that speech. And Heatchliff’s cries of despair at her death are cut down to a simple “don’t leave me here where I cannot find you”. I have nothing against simplification, but these are, for me, a large part of the attraction to the story.
‘I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
“I love my murderer - but yours? how can I?”
“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”
All cut, which to me was quite a big let-down.
On to the ambivalency! That is, there are two points that I have some trouble coming to a coherent point of view about. First off, there is the extra bits of story that Arnold added, set in Cathy and Heathcliff’s shared childhood. Secondly and most importantly, the only story we get are the Heathcliff and Cathy parts. No Lockwood to frame the story, nothing after Cathy’s death.
Firstly, the extra childhood scenes. In principle this is something that I quite like, but in this case I guess I just miss that ‘we are obsessively close’ vibe that I do get from the novel. In the film, it often seemed to me like they were “just” childhood friends. I did like that they elaborated on how tough things really are for Heathcliff, even when Mr. Earnshaw is still alive. And that’s another thing: no reassuring imagining of heaven? No sweet and caring scene? It was that scene that made Young Cathy and Young Heathcliff more multi-dimensional to me initially.
As for the more concise story: I can certainly understand why Arnold decided to portray it like this. Not because it’s “too complicated”, as is often said about the original novel - given that there aren’t very many characters, but many have similar names and there is a lot of intermarriage and interhating. I like to think that audiences these days are perfectly able to watch a movie with a plot that requires them to think for more than half a second.
I think the rationale probably ran along the lines of ‘this is the essential Wuthering Heights’. In a way, it certainly is. It’s the bond between Cathy and Heathcliff, and the destruction it brings, that has fascinated us for all this time.
Ultimately, though, I feel like the additional storylines and perspectives are certainly necessary to complete the story. Lockwood adds a (selfish, ultimately uncaring) outside perspective that puts the emotional span of the story in perspective. Nelly actively narrating adds yet another point of view.
And what is fascinating through the ages? The fact that Heathcliff really cannot live without his soul. The way it tears him down. The way he then tears everybody else down. Out of spite? To feel something? To punish? To ensure he isn’t alone in his suffering?
Ultimately what compels me is the way he has to go on, for twenty long years.
So, in all: I wasn’t in awe. It made me think. I thought it was visually appealing. I liked its raw essence. But it wasn’t Wuthering Heights to me, personally.
New book blog post! I review Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. If anyone in the Ghent area is interested in going, I have one duo ticket left, so message me with a reason why you deserve it ;)