Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The abyss of passion”

Posted on August 3, 2012


Finally, an adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ that’s every bit as disturbing to movie audiences as the book must have been for the readers of its time.

On a flight recently, I watched the most unsettling adaptation of Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold. I’ve seen, a long time ago, the much-revered William Wyler version with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy. I remember being struck, at the time, by Olivier’s performance when his great love dies. He looks away from her bedside and does this constriction with his face that suggests that he allowed his feelings to rise to the surface and then instantly suppressed them – this bottled-up emotion is what will drive this character’s actions through the rest of the story had it been narrated in its entirety. Wyler’s film ends, as Arnold’s does, with Cathy’s death, presumably because the plight of the next generation cannot possibly compete with the tumult that’s preceded it – but that’s the only similarity (other than the source, of course). Wyler’s film presents the story as an immaculately mounted Hollywood drama, while Arnold shoots her scenes with a handheld camera, like a photographer clicking away in the midst of guerrilla warfare.

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Arnold’s film suggests that there could be no better (and indeed no other) manner of capturing the passions in this story. Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, cry out for the immaculately-mounted-Hollywood-drama treatment (though even in that universe, Joe Wright made a version of Pride and Prejudice that resonated with the squelch of mud), whereas the books of the Brontë sisters, animated by animalistic streaks, seem to come alive better when freed not just from the cinematic concerns of classical framing and lighting but also the commercial implications of how best to make a movie that everyone will watch. The very nature of these books posits that they cannot be made into popular movies, pleasuring all audiences. These stories work only when the film versions feature, as Arnold’s does, a scene of a young Cathy running her tongue over the whiplash welts on Heathcliff’s back. That warm and wet mouth is the only imaginable poultice under these circumstances.

Dil Diya Dard Liya, the Hindi adaptation of Wuthering Heights with Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman, is a textbook-ready example of how not to approach a classic. If you haven’t read the book, this is, of course, just another romantic melodrama about lovers kept apart due to their stations in life, but to those familiar with the source, the film is a desecration of everything in the text. When you strip away the extremes of savagery on the page – the savage nature of the romance between Heathcliff and Cathy; the savagery of their surroundings; the physical and psychological savageries inflicted on Heathcliff – all you’re left with is a boilerplate love story between a girl of means and household servant. The Hindi film audience of the time must have wondered what was so interesting about this subject that the makers were attracted to it. The story needed Andrea Arnold, but even she couldn’t have really brought it to life in the Hindi-film climate of the time.

As for Wyler, even if he’d possessed Arnold’s temperament, her madness, he couldn’t have made an adaptation that fully brought alive Brontë’s book, for – again – he plied his trade under a repressive Hollywood climate. It appears that only in this age, freed of every imaginable restriction, can certain works of literature be adapted the way they were meant to be. Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights has swearing and nudity (all the more startling because it is not featured in a conventional sexual context but in a more private moment), and its biggest surprise – something unimaginable in an earlier era – is that Heathcliff is played by a black actor. This casting erects yet another barrier between the lovers – they’re not just from different social strata, but also ethnic backgrounds. And in those times, a “coloured boy” would have been considered a savage, which dovetails beautifully with Brontë’s conception of her male protagonist.

When novels are converted to cinema, one section of the audience expects fidelity – they want to see on film the images they saw inside their heads when they read the book. Others, fewer in number, look forward to how a story that exists in one medium finds its feet in another. In their eyes, the novel is already complete. The film can only add or subtract, and the more filmic these additions and subtractions the more interesting the adaptation becomes. The new Wuthering Heights will annoy the former category of audience and thrill the latter. What’s important, to me, isn’t faithfulness but the vision the filmmaker brings to bear on the material – which is why I am now seeking out Luis Buñuel’s adaptation, made in 1954 (during his Mexican period) and released as Abismos de Pasión. The abyss of passion. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “The Spanish title seems much more appropriate than the Brontë original.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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