Wuthering Heights has always been the misunderstood outcast of English letters. Seen through the prism of the high school social hierarchy, it’s the wild child sitting at the back of the class of classic texts, daydreaming about how to exact revenge on anyone who ever underestimated its literary merits or compared it unfavorably to its sibling rival, Jane Eyre.
Emily Bronte’s story of doomed love stirred up amid the whiplash winds of the Yorkshire moors has always resisted the standardized strictures of the venerated nineteenth-century novel. It doesn’t quite qualify as a tragic romance because structurally, the narrative tension doesn’t lie in the will-they-or-won’t-they yearning of ardent innocents separated by circumstance or social class. Rather the vast majority of Wuthering Heights’ narrative real estate is animated by the emotional byproducts of thwarted love: regret, revenge, and remorse. On some level, Emily Bronte may have been a misunderstood modernist ahead of her time, expressing her deepest insights into the darkest corners of human nature in a kind of impressionistic free-verse style that was shoehorned into the form of a Victorian novel.
But as with any good romantic novel about an underestimated outsider, it seems that Wuthering Heights has finally found its sensitive and strong Byronic hero in the form of Andrea Arnold, the Oscar-winning British filmmaker who directed the latest adaptation of Bronte’s novel, due for limited release on Friday. Arnold took the reigns of the twelfth big-screen telling of Cathy and Heathcliffe’s scorched earth love story when director Peter Webber (“Girl with the Pearl Earring”) dropped out of the project.
Choosing to depart radically from more literal Wuthering Heights interpretations, Arnold (best known for “Fish Tank,” a social realist look at teen angst and sexual confusion among working class Brits) took an impressionistic approach to the material, casting aside many of the story’s literal plot points in favor of capturing the characters on an elemental level. Her version takes the bold narrative leap of making this forbidden love story an interracial romance that takes shape nearly wordlessly shortly after Cathy’s father takes in a black orphan named Heathcliff, and the two kindred spirits connect through stolen glances and horseback rides along the windswept moor. “It’s impossible to do a faithful adaptation,” insists Arnold. “The book is a pure thing and I wanted to be honest to the essence of it rather than try to replicate it. I had always had a thing about the book. It had always fascinated me. So when the opportunity to direct it came out of the blue, I had this very instinctual reaction to it, which was to agree to tackle it even though it scared me and eluded me.”
Arnold, making her first foray into literary adaptation and period filmmaking, toyed with a variety of different approaches that would enable her to make a personal film while remaining true to the spirit of the novel. “I had started out thinking I would make the film in the present day,” says Arnold. “But then I realized that many of the conflicts facing the characters wouldn’t make sense in today’s world so we placed it back in the period but kept it kind of ambiguous.”
There is nothing fuzzy or vague in Arnold’s film about the emotions roiling through the film’s two young lovers. The director focused her visceral approach to the novel on the timeless agony of feeling displaced and at odds with one’s environment and the primal impulse to seek solace in the first glimmer of anything that feels familiar. “I really connected with Heathcliff,” Arnold recalls. “My very first though after reading the book was that he was a quite troubled character who had an abused childhood and for me that made sense. So I wanted to explore that emotionally.”
Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from watching the film’s loose interpretation of its source material, Arnold has spent the better part of the past three years sifting through piles of Bronte research and analysis of the novel and its creator. “When I started to think more about Cathy and what she was all about, I began to see how each of the characters represented a different part of Emily Bronte,” says Arnold, who has formulated a complex Freudian interpretation of the novel, in which Cathy represents Bronte’s selfish ego, Heathliff embodies her impulsive id, and his rival, the upstanding and gainfully employed Edgar, serves as Bronte’s rational superego.
As the film makes its way into theaters, Arnold has only just begun emerge from her own tormented relationship with Wuthering Heights. “The book definitely swept me up in all its messy emotions and I still have yet to recover from the experience,” Arnold admits. “It was a struggle finding my way through and I still feel a little raw from the whole experience of making this film. But I think that’s what kind of book it is. It keeps throwing up all kinds of questions with no real answers. That’s what makes it special. It battles people in a good way. In a way it should.”