Tackling a beloved and classic piece of literature to interpret into film is not an easy task and one that director Andrea Arnold typically doesn’t like to do. But after the idea to direct an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights got stuck in Arnold’s head—it stayed there.
Following up her critically acclaimed 2009 film Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights (written by Olivia Hetreed) tells the iconic story of Heathcliff (Solomon Glave and James Howson), an orphan who is taken in by the Earnshaw family and begins a passionate and often violent relationship with Cathy (Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario) spanning throughout their childhood into young adulthood. Arnold’s adaptation, only focuses on the first half of the book which echoes similar sentiments on isolation, class, abuse and desire.
When Arnold reread the novel as a teen, the undying, passionate love between Heathcliff and Cathy turned into something different:
I read the book later when I was a teenager. I was surprised because it wasn’t quite the love story I had grown to expect. It was a much darker, stranger, more profound thing.
Unlike other iterations of Wuthering Heights, Arnold’s dark, strange feelings permeate the film. If you are hoping for a swoony love story—Arnold doesn’t give that to you. Instead, she has deconstructed typical viewpoints of the Heathcliff/Cathy relationship showing the ugliness that both romantic and class-driven desire can hold. I appreciated that Arnold didn’t gloss over the weird abusive relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy from both sides and the ultimate destruction that it causes.
Arnold also evokes this feeling visually as well. Instead of the artifice of an epic period drama—it feels as if Arnold is shooting a documentary—stripping the film to the wind-swept moors, grubby fields and claustrophobic spaces. Another atypical detail in Arnold’s adaptation is that she cast a black actor as Heathcliff which caused some media speculation. In an interview with Indiewire, Arnold mentions that it is made very clear in the novel that Heathcliff is not white.
I think it's weird that they would make a fuss, because why not? If you go through the descriptions of Heathcliff in the book, it is very, very clear that he's not white. "Was your mother an Indian princess and your mother a Chinese emperor?" That's not being said about somebody who's from Yorkshire. When he first arrives, he speaks a language they can't understand. Hollywood started making this film a long time ago, and it's actually surprising to me that no one has done it before. There was a massive slave port in Liverpool at that time. It's possible that Heathcliff could have been the son of a slave or had come off one of the ships. It's possible.
While it’s not my favorite of Arnold’s work (Fish Tank gets that honor), her adaptation makes us question what we view as romance and the ugliness behind it.
Wuthering Heights opens in New York on October 5th and in Los Angeles on October 12th.