The 2011 film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, starring Kaya Scodelario as Catherine and both Solomon Glave and James Howson as Heathcliff, has finally made it to Australian cinemas. In some respects, this is a difficult novel to adapt to screen, and certainly it only succeeds by dropping the overtly literary device of the framing multi-layered narration of Nelly and Lockwood, the latter not even appearing as a character in the film.
In addition to these changes, the film effectively drops the portion of the novel’s second half that deals with the second generation of main characters and the somewhat redemptive romance between Catherine and Hareton. It’s therefore clear that like other film adaptations of this novel, the focus is squarely upon the eternally frustrated and unconsummated romance between Cathy Earnshaw and the wild and mysterious Heathcliff. The film attempts to retain some of the novel’s temporal structure, beginning in medias res, with an image of Heathcliff (not Lockwood) being haunted by tree branches scraping at the window.
Heathcliff is first described by Brontë in the novel as a “dark-skinned gypsy” in aspect, and while it’s not clear what ethnicity she had in mind, I don’t find it particularly controversial that Heathcliff is played by two actors of Afro-Carribean descent, Solomon Glave and James Howson (unlike David Stratton and The Guardian). Literary critics have discussed Heathcliff’s racial and paternal origins at length in the past, with some leaning towards the possibility that he is a half-caste child of Earnshaw’s, taken in out of fatherly duty more than Christian charity, though neither the book nor the film explicitly encourage this view.
For the parts of the novel that it includes, the film rings very true to Brontë’s intent, from the harsh treatment of Heathcliff by Hindley, his blossoming childhood love for Cathy and the binary opposition between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, home of the Lintons. At 129 minutes, the film moves quite slowly through the plot, focalised heavily through Heathcliff, allowing the viewer to really see events from his perspective, a luxury that the novel does not afford us. The Gothic elements of the novel are emphasised with constant images of animals being slaughtered and the mandatory scene of cruelty towards a small dog.
Another factor in the film’s slowness is its constant focus upon the wild natural setting of the moors surrounding Wuthering Heights, where the young love unfolds. However, I feel that if the viewer is patient, this slow movement to the inevitable climax is highly rewarding. The strong emphasis on the wild nature of Heathcliff and Cathy and their wild natural surrounds cuts to the true heart of Brontë’s story.
Is this film successful from the point of view of a typical Brontë fan? That’s difficult to say, without knowing who this typical Brontë fan is. Certainly it’s very different to previous romanticised film adaptations of Wuthering Heights. For me, the realism of the film and its insistent emphasis on retaining the Gothic elements of the novel are both very welcome. And since I was struggling not to cry as I walked out of the cinema, the film was certainly successful from my point of view.