Bronte’s lovers face more storms

Wuthering Heights is a romance,even in its latest adaptation,but at the heart of the book is a bigger conflict—two men battling over power and property. So why do we only remember it as a love story?

Written by New York Times | Published: October 7, 2012 2:22 am

David Belcher

With more than a dozen film versions,Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is something of a cultural touchstone for ill-fated love. The title alone conjures up images of a brooding Heathcliff and a delicate Cathy clinging to each other. And yet,at least when it comes to screen adaptations,the novel may be the most misunderstood book of all time.

“I think it’s developed a cultural mythology,sort of like Romeo and Juliet,but there are so many other plotlines,” said Hila Shachar,author of Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company. The love story is appealing as myth,she continued,“but why do we remember it as a love story?”

Certainly the 1847 novel contains a romance. Heathcliff and Cathy,raised as adopted siblings,fall in love but are torn apart by their agonised passion and a jealous brother,Hindley. They find solace on the desolate moors,but Cathy’s marriage to a wealthy neighbour,Edgar,turns Heathcliff bitter,and he disappears,returning a rich man but reconnecting too late,as Cathy dies after giving birth to a daughter.

But that’s not the end. In the second half of the book,Cathy’s daughter grows up to marry both Heathcliff’s son and,after his premature death,Hindley’s son,while an aged Heathcliff tries to manipulate their fates. He’s motivated by the desire to get back at Hindley,who tormented Heathcliff as a child. And that,many scholars have argued,is the central conflict of the book: two men battling over power and property.

Unlike Jane Eyre,by her sister Charlotte,which is almost tailor-made for film with its linear structure (at least 27 adaptations for film and television),Emily Bronte’s novel requires a regular return to the family tree and a glossary to keep it all straight. Is it any wonder that many film versions,operas and pop songs,only focus on the tragic love story?

“If you end with Heathcliff and Cathy you end with tragedy,but if you end where the book ends it’s about the defeat of Heathcliff’s desire for revenge and hatred,” said the playwright Peter Bowker,who wrote the 2009 TV version.

The latest version of Wuthering Heights,comes from the writer-director Andrea Arnold,and she,too,makes the Cathy-Heathcliff love story central to the plot. Heathcliff in this case is played by the black actor James Howson. “Bronte’s book is not Romanticism—it’s a harsh and brutal book,” Shachar said. “But we’ve turned it into a romance,because that suits us.”

The fact that Wuthering Heights is so adaptable heartens some scholars. “My view is that you cannot spoil a classic text,because it’s a renewable resource,” said Charmian Knight,a lecturer,writer and member of the Bronte Society.

Arnold,whose credits include the thriller Red Road (2006) and the bleak drama Fish Tank (2009) said last year at the Venice Film Festival,where the film had its premiere,that she regretted not including the second half of the book.

Part of the challenge of adapting the book is that it’s told from the perspective of a narrator interpreting a second narrator relating two generations of family dysfunction. “We can’t trust those voices because they’re all characters with their own agenda,” Knight said.

For all these reasons,it’s understandable that Samuel Goldwyn,who produced the 1939 version,reportedly wanted the novel reworked as “a story of undying love that transcends the gloomy nature of its backgrounds.”

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