I’m an advocate for the sort of books an A Level in English Literature makes you read; they’re deep, interesting, often dark. Wuthering Heights was one of these books for me, and it attracted the girls with the promise of a tragic romance, and the boys with the prospect of violence. It’s no exaggeration that Emily Bronte’s work is one of England’s best loved novels, especially in its association with the Yorkshire Moors. So how could an adaptation of such a revered source go so wrong?
As I’m sure most readers are at least vaguely aware, Wuthering Heights follows Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff, who is taken into her family home as a homeless boy. The two soon become inseparable, but when Cathy decides to marry Edgar Linton, a better-off boy from across the hill, Heathcliff runs away, only returning years later for revenge against both families. Heathcliff and Cathy’s is a tale of wasted love set around themes of jealousy and vengeance.
Unsurprisingly, there have been countless adaptations of Wuthering Heights, in languages ranging from French to Japanese, from as early as 1939. However, one might surmise that in the last century, as technology, research and theoretical thinking has all improved so rapidly, we might be able to create an adaptation of a classic, well-loved book that actually does it justice based on careful reading and all the wondrous things filmmaking can do nowadays. Unfortunately, this hasn’t proved the case.
The book’s most recent English adaptation came in 2011, directed by Angela Arnold, director of just a few other films and starring Kaya Scodelario and James Howson. Rather, that’s how the film was billed, but most of the running time was actually spent with their childhood counterparts.
Although these earlier events are obviously essential to the later relationships and turmoils, there is little to say there compared to later on, and yet we are fed endless scenes of Cathy and Heathcliff rollicking together on the moors… and when I say endless, that is really how it feels. It ends up making the film feel exceptionally unbalanced, as it is establishes how much Cathy and Heathcliff care for each other but not everything that goes through their minds or motivates them later on.
As beautiful as the Yorkshire Moors are, it really is unessential for us to see them quite as much as we do; a little character development in their place wouldn’t have gone amiss. Goodness knows there’s enough in the book to draw from.
Equally, as often as we see the moors, the majority of it is plagued by shaky camerawork and the sound is often overpowered by the wind too. How Arnold won Best Cinematography at the Venice International Film Festival, I do not know. Perhaps there wasn’t much else to choose from. Regardless, the whole thing becomes hard to watch and concentrate on, especially during physical conflicts; when Heathcliff is first kicked out of the Lintons’ house, it is almost impossible to tell what’s actually going on, and it’s the same again when he’s kicked out years later. There’s not enough focus and too many failed attempts at heightened drama using the camera.
Unfortunately, even the actors don’t particularly redeem the piece. Shannon Beer is very whiny as young Cathy, as she constantly shouts after Heathcliff, although at least her broad Yorkshire accent sounds authentic. Young Heathcliff, Solomon Glave, only compliments this with brooding looks which just looked like he was being a sullen kid, so the pair weren’t too compelling to watch; this may have been fine if their portion of the film was a more reasonable length, but we were forced to watch their grumpy frolicking for far too long.
Unfortunately, they’re not even redeemed later on. I had high hopes for Kaya Scodelario as she seemed to be the young actress to watch from Skins, but ultimately her accent is weak and her emotions even weaker. James Howson had many of the same traits as his younger counterpart, as he brooded with no sympathy and spoke with little care. It was also disconcerting how different to their younger versions each actor looked, mostly in face and body shape.
The other actors involved brought a bit more to the table, but weren’t given much opportunity to do anything with it. Edgar Linton (James Northcote) seemed perfectly sympathetic, but he was always made to feel unwelcome. The loss of a significant Nelly role was notable, but Simone Jackson did what she could with the little she had, as did Nichola Burley as Isabella Linton and Lee Shaw as Hindley Earnshaw. However, they always seemed like unimportant roles filling space around Cathy and Heathcliff.
Whatever you may think of the book, this film will do it absolutely no favours and doesn’t stand on its own at all. I would recommend anyone with a hankering for a classic film adaptation to stay clear of this and perhaps go instead for the 1992 version starring Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff, or even the 1978 BBC one. Just don’t bother with this attempt to kill the genre.