On the Many Film Adaptations of the “Unfilmable” Wuthering Heights
And How They Change Our Understanding of the Original Text
That books change over time is obvious. But how exactly do they change? Of course, there is context and experience, the first lost and the latter gained. The time in which a book was written is naturally in the past, and the cultural and personal understanding acquired, for better or worse, alters how we read. However, what isn’t usually acknowledged is the process by which film adaptations can shift the meanings of an original text. Images become attached to words where none existed before, and that can change how we absorb certain narratives or reshape how they exist in the popular imagination. And when a book has been adapted for the screen multiple times, a strange layering occurs: each successive transformation is influenced both by the previous cinematic treatments as well as the original text. Every new adaptation now carries a heavier burden than before, and has to contend with a growing network of narrative and visual associations.
This can be seen in how we think about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which many consider to be unfilmable. And that conclusion is understandable—Brontë’s sprawling book about the destructive bond between the orphan Heathcliff and the object of his desire, Catherine Earnshaw, is split up into two lengthy sections, spans three generations of characters, and is told through a seemingly complex narrative structure using multiple (unreliable) narrators and unfolding mostly in flashback. Translating this accurately into a film is a head-scratcher. But this hasn’t stopped people from trying: at least 14 different film and television versions of the novel exist, the first being made in 1920 and the latest in 2011. While these attempts are often wildly different and vary in their success (the less said about the California-set MTV adaptation produced in 2003, the better), they contribute to our understanding of Wuthering Heights almost as much as the original text.
Take, for example, the moors. Their presence in Wuthering Heights represents both freedom and danger, a symbol of Heathcliff and Catherine’s love that is trampled by the forces of order. Brontë describes the moors as being covered in the “silvery vapour” of the “misty darkness,” which paints an evocative picture. But the dominance of the moors in our thinking about Wuthering Heights owes just as much the William Wyler’s 1939 film adaptation, starring Laurence Olivier as a brooding Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine. Scripted by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, this version is the most overtly romantic, due in large part to its omissions—like most of the other adaptations that followed, Wyler’s film ignores the second half of the book, and highlights the love story between Heathcliff and Catherine by removing, for the most part, the difficult cruelty of their characterizations.
Wyler’s version of Wuthering Heights remains the best known partly because it softens the story. But what makes the film unique, and not just another romantic drama, is the way cinematographer Gregg Toland portrays the moors as a fantastic spectacle of swirling fog, billowing wind, and hovering shadows. His expressionist rendering of the world of Wuthering Heights would have a profound influence on all the film adaptations that would come after it, and remains the dominant pictorial representation of the story.
The only adaptation that comes close to matching the heights of Toland’s imaginative vision is Yoshishige Yoshida’s 1988 film, Arashi ga oka. Transplanting the setting from England to feudal Japan, the film can be described as a heightening of all that we know about Wuthering Heights. The moors are replaced by a harsh mountain setting that is equally fog-plagued, and the performances are muscular and discordant, punctuated by a haunting and minimal set design. But where Wyler’s version tamed the unruliness of Brontë’s original text, Yoshida intensifies it through an emphasis on harshness and cruelty. This is the only version of Wuthering Heights, it’s safe to say, where a man gets shot through the chest with an arrow. Nevertheless, in some ways this combination of fantasy and brutality comes closest to what the novel achieves; despite its changing of the setting, Arashi ga oka is probably the most faithful to the atmosphere of the book.
In slightly truncated form, Arashi ga oka even attempts to include the more painful second half of the novel typically excised from adaptations of Wuthering Heights. Why most filmmakers leave this part out is self-evident—to include it would alter the love story that Wyler’s film put front and center: the part of the book that is now, in the popular imagination, the only part that exists. The remorseless second half transforms everything that came before—the passion is now fury, the romance bitter. Wuthering Heights ultimately becomes a blistering and bleak novel about revenge and the way we carry our suffering.
Arashi ga oka was not the first version of Wuthering Heights to subvert its central love story. There are clear parallels between the starkness of Yoshida’s film and Luis Buñuel’s Abismos de pasión, his 1953 adaptation of Brontë’s novel. Buñuel wrote the script almost two decades before he shot the film that was associated with the Surrealists, who held an interest in Brontë’s tale of hysterical amour fou. But it’s hard not to see his film as a response to Wyler’s 1939 adaptation. Abismos de pasión strips away almost everything from the story but the pain, which it then views through a magnifying glass. There is no romanticism left, and all the darkness of Wyler’s film has been turned into blinding, dry heat, as if a curtain has been suddenly lifted.
Jacques Rivette’s Hurlevent, a 1985 take on the novel, is a more direct response to Wyler than even Buñuel’s version of Wuthering Heights. In different interviews, the French director has talked about his displeasure with Wyler’s treatment of the novel, referring to it as closer to the world of Jane Austen than Brontë. Hurlevent was his response, taking the story of Wuthering Heights and moving it to southern France in the 1930s. Rivette manages to poignantly address key themes which are often overlooked by previous adaptations surrounding class and jealousy. His use of young actors, both fresh-faced and awkward, in the main roles reinforces the complex emotional zig-zagging that happens from one scene to the next.
Andrea Arnold’s gloomy-realist 2011 adaptation, on the other hand, is all harshness and very little emotion. Bringing the story of Wuthering Heights back to the English moors, she dismantles the landscape for all its elaborate mystery—this is a world of grey clouds, dark mud, and savage winds. Arnold’s film works against the fantasy of Wuthering Heights—against the stratospheric melodrama of the many made-for-television versions, or Kate Bush’s brilliant translation of the story into pop song—and attempts, instead, to forcibly bring it back down to earth. But it can’t shake the many adaptations that we know, or the images now popularly associated with the novel. By attempting to make Wuthering Heights more “real,” to in essence return it to some original state, the film actually becomes even further removed from its source.
What Arnold’s adaptation leaves us with is both a remake and a reaction to the films that came before; Brontë’s novel is beginning to disappear in the palimpsest. But we can safely assume that at some point another filmmaker will respond with their own spin on Wuthering Heights, and the conversation will continue.
“Heathcliff, It’s Me: Adapting Wuthering Heights” opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on February 24th.