When we think of “Wuthering Heights”, several images often spring to mind: a bitterly passionate, articulate Heathcliff; dark, intense romance; the Gothic and the supernatural; Kate Bush flailing about in a chiffon nightie. It’s no surprise, then, that Andrea Arnold’s brutal adaptation has caused so much controversy. Going against the conventions of the ‘period drama’, she has cast a black actor as Heathcliff, ignored the character of Lockwood, used a handheld camera, and heavily edited the famous dialogue. While in Bronte’s version Heathcliff says: “I vociferated curses enough to annihilate any fiend in Christendom”, in this interpretation he grunts: “F— you all, c—s”.
Despite the upset this might have caused, there’s a definite sense that the film is loyal to the book. As one critic has pointed out, by ignoring the frothy Olivier-esque layers and connotations, Arnold “pushes the story all the way back to its original 1847 incarnation”. It’s important to remember that Wuthering Heights is not a love-story, but a disturbing tale in which nature is the main character. It’s this rough and intense atmosphere which also pervades the new film.
However, although ‘rough and intense’, Arnold’s interpretation is not traditionally ‘gothic’ in the same way that the novel is. In the book, Cathy’s ghost is alluded to as early as Chapter One, and the supernatural becomes increasingly prominent as the story progresses. In Arnold’s film, this is replaced by a more physical strangeness – for example, we see Cathy, as a child, licking blood off a wound on Heathcliff’s back. James Northcote, who plays Edgar Linton, mentioned this when speaking exclusively to Nouse: “Although I can’t speak for Andrea, I think the film is so physical that the only experiences of the supernatural that there are are shown as normal things that happen, rather than extraordinary or magical. They’re just physical experiences, as much as eating or drinking or dying.” This may explain why the film leaves us with such a disturbed feeling – in the world of Cathy and Heathcliff (which is literally cut off from civilisation), horrific, primal acts like these are considered normative.
When discussing this dirty, primordial world that Heathcliff and Cathy privately inhabit, Northcote brings up the portrayal of setting and class in the film, and how it differs from other interpretations: “Often the Earnshaws are shown as quite well-to-do, even though the Lintons are much richer, but I think it’s more effective if you get a sense for the difficult way of life that these people are living,” he says. “When my dad (who’s from Yorkshire) saw the film, he said it’s the first time he’s really seen the poverty, hardship and strength of the people who lived in those circumstances [in an adaptation], and he thought that kind of dirtiness was a lot more accurate.”
It’s perhaps because of this need for actual, rather than literary, accuracy that the cast were actually directed not to read the book. “We were told by Andrea that she’d prefer for us not to read Wuthering Heights if we hadn’t already. I think she didn’t want us to get any preconceived ideas of the characters we were playing,” Northcote explains. “She discouraged us from trying to construct a different person that we’d then step into. For her, it was more important that we were just as natural as possible. In fact, I think Andrea chose people because she believed they were like the characters she wanted in the film. I remember her saying to me that she had picked me partly because Edgar can come across quite badly in the book – as someone who is fairly patriarchal and set in the ways of the time. She said she needed someone so ‘nice’ that that wouldn’t happen!” He later adds: “c– we could only see our own scenes a few days before, which was pretty exciting for me as an actor.”
It might seem strange for anyone who hasn’t seen the film for the director to turn away from the original text, but Arnold’s creation is so raw and fresh that the distance makes sense. She has reminded us of the dirtiness and brutality that is woven into the original 1847 narrative, and presented us with a film that is fresh and authentic as well as loyal to Bronte’s classic.