'Wuthering Heights' gets a gritty new film adaptation
British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, in an interview, describes how her gritty, primal take on "Wuthering Heights" came to the screen.
Seattle Times movie critic
Seattle International Film FestivalThrough June 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, Egyptian, Pacific Place, Harvard Exit, SIFF Film Center, Kirkland Performance Center (through June 10). Tickets are $11 for most individual films; various passes and packages are available. Information: www.siff.net or 206-324-9996.
"Wuthering Heights" screens at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 8, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 9, both at the Harvard Exit. Arnold's 2006 thriller "Red Road" also screens at SIFF at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 9 at the Harvard Exit.
The Seattle Times prints festival highlights Mondays-Thursdays and Saturdays in the B section; Fridays in MovieTimes and Sundays in NW Arts & Life. Or look daily on seattletimes.com/movies.
British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, whose gritty, primal take on "Wuthering Heights" screens at the Seattle International Film Festival this week, first read the Emily Brontë classic as a young adult. Because the book was so famous, she was expecting it to be a love story. "When I read it, I was a bit surprised," she said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. "It's not quite as simple as that — there's so much more going on. It's actually a confounding book, really."
A dark, windswept tale of passion, fury and cruelty among two generations of a family on the Yorkshire moors, "Wuthering Heights," published in 1847, was Brontë's only novel. The daughter of a curate, Brontë was a homebody who never married and lived a brief, quiet life; dying of tuberculosis at the age of 30. Arnold said that she heard that Brontë had never actually intended anyone to read "Wuthering Heights" — that she originally wrote it for her own eyes only.
"If that's true, that makes so much sense," said Arnold. "I feel like the book's quite intimate, like somebody dealing with their own thoughts and imagination. She would have been quite free and she wouldn't have worried what anyone thought. In those days, women were not supposed to speak up and be heard and have opinions."
"Wuthering Heights" is the third feature for Arnold, who's being honored by SIFF as an Emerging Master this year. (She's also an Academy Award winner, for the short film "Wasp.") It's her first adaptation, and one that came about almost accidentally: Arnold heard via the film-industry grapevine that a new version of "Wuthering Heights" was in the works and "felt jealous," wishing that she were involved. Then a call came from her agent: The original director had left; did Arnold want to do it? Though there was already a screenplay in place, Arnold rewrote it, honing in on the first part of the book (the original Heathcliff and Catherine) and using as little dialogue as possible. "I'm always fascinated with trying to use images as opposed to dialogue to tell a story, and how far I can push that," she said.
Casting presented several challenges, the biggest of which was whether to double-cast Heathcliff and Catherine, who we first meet in their early teens and later as young adults. "I really didn't want to do it," said Arnold, who worried that it would be jarring to change actors mid-movie. But it seemed impossible to find 13-year-olds who could realistically age six years, and dishonest to have older actors play younger. "The thing about childhood is that it's so intense and important, and 18- and 19-year-olds are not children — they don't think like children," she said. "I didn't want them pretending to be children because I thought that childhood was such an important element of the book. Sometimes, in filmmaking, you have to choose the lesser of two evils."
And one of her casting decisions created a stir when the film premiered at the Venice and Toronto film festivals last fall: Heathcliff, an orphan adopted by the Earnshaw family, is played by a black actor. Though Heathcliff is described as dark-skinned in the book, he's been played in previous movie adaptations by the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier (who Arnold remembered seeing in the 1939 version as a child, "with my gran"), Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy.
"I think, to the book, that's the most truthful if you really study it," said Arnold of her interpretation. Though she said that Heathcliff was probably conceived as a Romany gypsy, his origins in the book are vague, with Mr. Earnshaw finding Heathcliff on a trip to Liverpool. "There was a massive slave portal in Liverpool [at that time], and I thought, it's possible, he could have brought back a boy who was the son of a slave. It's not in the book, but if your imagination runs along a little further, you can imagine that."
Arnold wanted to shoot the film in Brontë's hometown of Haworth, but wasn't able to do so; that region, she said, experienced much growth after the industrial revolution and is now bustling and populated, with few isolated places. Looking a little further afield, she managed to find an appropriate stand-in for the Earnshaw home: an old farmhouse in the North Yorkshire moors, free of modern updates and far from neighbors or sounds — except for the howling wind. The cast and crew would gather around the fireplace in the evening, getting a sense of what life might have been like there more than 150 years ago.
With "Wuthering Heights" completed, Arnold said that it may be a while before she takes on another adaptation; throughout this project, she was perpetually aware of the responsibility of doing right by the original author. Early on, she said, she had begun writing the film as a contemporary take on the novel. "I went up to Haworth, and I saw this lad walking down a lane wearing a hoodie, and I thought, 'Heathcliff!' I started writing — I could see him arriving in the car, he's been in foster care and he's coming back ...
"But the more I delved into the book, I realized that it would be a disservice to Emily to do it contemporary, because things are not quite the same. [Women] didn't have such a voice then. I wanted, for her, to do it the best I could. Contemporary felt like it wasn't paying respect to her."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org