For those who know director Andrea Arnold’s previous work, her emotionally devastating and visually arresting take on Emily Brontë should come as little surprise. After all, the protagonist of her raw and memorable coming-of-age story Fish Tank (2009) may have been a present-day teenage girl but she shared more than a few character traits with Heathcliff, the quintessential romantic hero: bitterly anti-social, they both suffer from betrayal and broken hearts that no one else in their environment can really understand, let alone sympathize with.
And while neither Fish Tank nor Wuthering Heights represent appropriate viewing material for youth audiences in libraries or secondary classrooms*, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t see, and discuss, the latter, which opens in New York today and rolls out to several U.S. cities over the coming weeks. Even showing brief clips, or the trailer, has the potential to launch a far-ranging conversation about adaptation, class, and, most of all, race.
Why? Well, just take a glance at the image above or the trailer below.
In the novel I believe Heathcliff is referred to as a “dark-skinned gypsy” and, in a sense, Arnold reverses this—here the character is actually light-skinned… for someone who is obviously of African ancestry, that is. The result is that the forbidden nature of his and Catherine’s relationship becomes achingly stark to modern audiences—this is not Laurence Olivier or Ralph Feinnes with a subtle tan.
But is such a reading of Brontë an acceptable “interpretation” or a wrong-headed assault on a classic? I’ll leave that up to classroom teachers, scholars, and students themselves to debate. More interesting, at least to me, is that what prevents Arnold’s version from coming across as opportunistic and gimmicky (“Look, a black Heathcliff!”) is that apart from this fundamental shift in representation, it is so intent on carefully re-creating the world in which the novel is set. In other words, the film eschews the showy costumes, gorgeously deep shadows, and sweeping orchestral accompaniments that we traditionally associate with film versions of gothic romances dating back to the 1930’s.
In the process, it unwittingly shows us how much our experience of certain literary schools, genres, and movements is filtered through the countless “prestige” films we’ve all seen over the years. So do we perpetuate this when we continue to screen safe, sanitary, and non-polarizing adaptions of canon lit? Given the limitations (natural and imposed) of K-12 education, I’m not proposing that we overturn common practice and start showcasing R-rated films as a matter of course…
…but I am saying that we should at least feel the freedom not only to discuss such films but also to explore the long-term effects that a focus on non-risky adaptations of the canon can have on audiences, on the culture, and, ultimately, on art itself.
*In addition to the depiction of some sexuality, the language in certain scenes is extremely coarse; what’s notable, though, is that the inclusion of these elements doesn’t make the film feel like it runs counter to the spirit of the novel.