Wuthering Heights to Screen

I’ve just been to the BBC site to see if there is anywhere I could write the below but couldn’t find a place to provide feedback and so I’m hijacking my blog. And this piece is about translation: in this instance from book to screen.

Last night I watched the first bit of the ITV adaptation of Wuthering Heights. With fear and trepidation. This is my favourite book and I’ve never understood why such a visual tale should be so difficult to translate to screen. I had thought that it was because somebody else’s Heathcliff would always be disappointing. However having watched the beginning of this new adaptation, I’ve changed my mind.

The thing is that I liked it. Sarah Lancaster is a superb choice for Nellie Dean, the actress who plays young Cathy does a very good job. Heathcliff did not disappoint. If I hadn’t been a fan of the book, I think I would have found the telling of the story gripping. The fault for me was in its adaptation.

At the point where Heathcliff bludgeons the Linton’s dog (having bitten Cathy) I stopped watching. Then, of course, I became agitated as to what the problem was – the story telling was though, not accurate, good and the screenwriter must translate for the screen. This morning I think I came up with why WH was so difficult to adapt and some working solutions. I think there are three very necessary ingredients to any adaptation:

  • Some device which gives the same effect to the viewer as Emily Bronte’s extraordinary dual narratation gives to the reader. I often wonder whether Emily Bronte added Lockwood as a kind of salve to her christian conscience – as a kind of bridge between ‘you and I’ and the world that she has created. Whether or which, he has a fascinating other effect of wanting us to distance ourselves from silly notions of goodness and romance. Nellie Dean on the other hand is far too connected to her charges to provide an unbiased account. So between the two the reader is left to simply allow the story wind out as it will, unpicked from the opinions of the dual narrative. In the ITV version where the writer opts to ignore Lockwood and to absorb Nellie as a character – he  is then left with a kind of embedded moral judgement, and that takes a great deal of the power out of the story. We get caught up with right and wrong, and social morality rather than just flowing with the story.

 

  • Good casting. Heathcliff isn’t as much a problem as I thought. I think the really difficult part is Edgar Linton. For me the Lintons are the baddies of the piece (in the end EB has removed all trace of them so clearly she isn’t all that invested in us feeling sorry for them).  It is again to EB’s complete credit that she creates a character that is fair, good-natured, genial,  the target of extreme vengefulness – and we don’t sympathize with him. It must be possible to recreate this on screen. And the final, difficult thing is that Heathcliff isn’t the centrepiece of this – Cathy is. I often wonder about which character EB saw herself as and I think she felt closest to Nellie Dean but would have liked to have been Cathy. Early Cathy is not hugely fleshed out but without a steady working of her charachter when we come to the Cathy being bitten scene (where I stopped watching last night) we won’t understand the huge implications of her small error in judgement, ie being seduced by the genteel living of the Linton’s, which leads to the drama and horror of the second part of the novel.

 

  • Time. This is a love story – the backdrop, the tragic elements have to do with social context, religion, location, gender etc etc but nonetheless it is a love story. In order to adapt this successfully I’d love if the writer would imagine for a moment WH coming to the public for the first time. Before there was any Greatest Love Story press built around it. Again EB is at pains through our dislike of Lockwood and through the sturdy loving nature of Nellie Dean to remove us from silly romantic notions (a la Isabella and Heathcliff) and bring to us an intense bond. The bond here is not about mad sexual attraction between a good girl and a bad boy, it is rather demonstrated through the fact that when Cathy has a choice – she chooses with her heart – to be with Heathcliff. She chooses him above her brother, the social anxieties of her class, the dire warnings of Joseph. And he returns her love with a massive loyalty. They are constant companions in every sense of the word. I think to be fully successful we have to either be in Cathy’s shoes ie when faced with a choice, we reaffirm our love to our beloved; or Heathcliff’s vulnerable shoes ie when our beloved is put to the test of them or us then we choose to steadfastly believe that the choice will be in our favour. To develop this connection is something that takes time and there is enough momentum, I think, in every part of the novel to produce a serialised version every bit as wildly compelling as the novel. But any attempt to rush seems to happen at the expense of the love story and the viewer is thinking aha a Great Love Story but errr I’m not sure why.  Without the huge bond between Cathy and Heathcliff as a basis for the story, the whole thing just seems like a series of bizarre, at times horrific moments.

Yes, I am a bit obsessed with the novel. When I got to the scene where Heathcliff hit the dog with a stone I stopped watching. It wasn’t just because there is nothing in the novel to suggest that Heathcliff at that stage was anything other than the recipient of violent behaviour but also because it is so important that Heathcliff doesn’t approach the Linton entourage at all (he wouldn’t have been welcome) – watching, at first, from a distance to see that Cathy is alright (she would have been accepted) and then rushing home to tell Nellie Dean. I couldn’t imagine how the writer could continue the tale without setting up that dynamic; and demonstrating brutality on Heathcliff’s behalf simply works against the premise in the novel that the actual cruelty lies with the Lintons’ scoring out anything unpalatable to their entitled situation.

So I had wanted to send an email, text, whatever to ask those wonderful commissioners at BBC who had made the amazing adaptation Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice etc to see whether they would take on WH as a project.

Enough, good night 🙂

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