After watching Andrea Arnold’s magnificent Wuthering Heights I began to think about the difference between adaptation and interpretation. What is the difference? For me, adaptation means a filmmaker or artist is adapting a work to another medium, like film or television, but interpretation is when the filmmaker takes the source material and approaches from a different angle, changing something within the source material to fit their vision. This is common in superhero films where there is much leeway in adapting certain characters to the screen. Of course, this can be very controversial when source material is altered but it can lead to interesting results. A film, or what have you, can be both an adaptation and an interpretation at the same time, with some leaning more towards a literal “book on film” approach.
Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is more of an interpretation than merely an adaptation. Moreover, one has to put aside any expectations he or she may have about literary adaptations, particularly adaptations of Emily Bronte’s immortal classic. Her film is the exact opposite of the stereotypes we associate with period pieces- stodginess, awards bait, dry- this is a raw, naturalistic yet lyrical and sometimes unsettling work. It trims down, like other adaptations of Wuthering Heights, the plot, but instead of feeling abridged for truncated, the piece feels like a whole- it feels like an actual film, richly cinematic, almost a silent film (the dialogue is very sparse)- almost Malickian in its appreciation and focus on nature.
From my memory of Bronte’s novel, not much of the plot is changed, but we never feel the film is just the book on screen. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not heavy with dialogue, and I don’t believe much of the dialogue is actually from the novel. Coming back to the theme of what makes this more of an interpretation rather a strict adaptation, Arnold approaches the novel from a strictly cinematic perspective. It communicates its emotions through visuals and mood. It’s a film we really need to pay attention to- to watch and soak in. I wish I had been able to witness this film on a large theatre screen. The images are so beautiful and textured that I want to get lost in them. I feel the cinema screen is always the best way to experience film, particularly a film like this.
One of the most significant interpretative elements in this film is Arnold’s casting of black actors in the role of Heathcliff (Solomon Glave as young Heathcliff and James Howson as the older Heathcliff). At first glance, this seems like a major change-and it is- but at the same time, making Heathcliff black while keeping the other major characters Caucasian feels truer to the spirit of Bronte’s novel. While Heathcliff wasn’t black in the novel, he was intended to be of an unspecified ethic origin (a gypsy I believe) which is why he was an outsider in this world. I don’t believe Heathcliff was supposed to be the image of a matinee idol like Laurence Olivier. With the casting a black actors, Arnold gets to the heart of Bronte’s fascination and empathy with the idea of the outsider. Critic David Fear, in his video essay on the DVD, parallels Heathcliff with Bronte, highlighting the fact that Bronte herself was an outsider in her time. Despite being a male character, Heathcliff was a very personal character for Bronte.
By making Heathcliff black, Arnold not only gets (arguably) closer to Bronte’s conception of Heathcliff, she re-contextualizes Heathcliff’s sufferings as the sufferings of people of African descent- despite the film not taking place in the United States. I think Heathcliff being black allows for a more relatable and contemporary entry point for audiences. And the film, despite taking place in the same era as the novel. It can be difficult making a period piece feel modern- the easy way out would be to set it in modern day- which was Arnold’s original intent. But Arnold finds the balance between setting the film in the past as well as making it feel contemporary. I think she manages this by using a hand held camera work, putting the audience right in the middle of events, making us feel like we’ve been transported in the past. Arnold’s work with cinematographer Robbie Ryan makes the moors of Wuthering Heights feel real to us, allowing us to view this world as a realistic place that existed for people- that was modern and common. I think that’s the key to Arnold’s mastery of modernizing the past.