(This essay was originally written for Professor John Bell's The Victorians at York University on February 6th, 2018.)
Peter Kosminsky’s film Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is one of few comprehensive adaptations of Brontë's novel. While highly imperfect in its depiction, it managed what no film adaptation before it had, it depicts both narratives within the novel. While many film adaptations end at the death of Cathy Earnshaw, Kosminsky’s version continues on until the death of Heathcliff. Though the film covers the entire timeline within Wuthering Heights, this does little to make up for its imperfections as an adaptation.
The relationships and drama depicted in the film are much sparser than that of the novel. There is a clear necessity in winnowing down Brontë's tragic tale to fit within the length of time available to a clear and concise film, but much of what is removed to create clarity in this shorter narrative is essential to the work that Brontë produced. The lasting impression that Wuthering Heights has left on literature does not wholly come from its tortured romance, but from the manner in which Brontë has written the relationships between each character. Kosminsky’s focus on the romance is understandable when you consider his attempt at creating a contemporary blockbuster of an age-old story, but his disregard to the relationships so carefully built by Brontë does a disservice to the narrative of Wuthering Heights.
One of the changes that has the greatest effect in separating the film from the novel, is the disparity between the Nelly Dean depicted in each. Nelly’s role as the main narrator in the novel, as well as a character involved in the action, makes her central to how the story plays out. In the film, however, she is a supporting character with little of the same relevance.
In reading the novel, it is clear that Nelly’s prejudice towards Catherine influences much of how the reader perceives her and occasionally how other characters in the book perceive Catherine’s actions. It is Nelly’s choice, to not relay Catherine’s message to Edgar, that can be pin-pointed as one of the main reasons that Catherine descends into madness and dies. Edgar himself recognizes that Nelly’s omission of Catherine’s behaviour was at fault in the book when he enters her bedchamber and sees her raving. Nelly offers him advice on how to proceed and he rebukes her,
“I desire no further advice from you,” answered Mr. Linton. “You knew your mistress’s nature, and you encouraged me to harass her. And not to give me one hint of how she has been these last three days! It was heartless! Months of sickness could not cause such a change!” (pp. 100).
This differs greatly from Nelly’s actions in the film. She does tell Edgar that Cathy is making herself sick to spite them but then says “Please, sir. Couldn’t you go and talk to her?” (Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights), she subsequently mentions Heathcliff, which makes Edgar decide not to see Cathy, but this is presented as an accident on Nelly’s part, not a subtle punishment of Edgar and, in turn, Cathy. That behaviour is very ample in the novel when it comes to Nelly’s treatment of Catherine. Earlier in the novel, Nelly lets Catherine talk at length about marrying Edgar, all the while knowing that Heathcliff listens in, and doesn’t tell Cathy. This same scene plays out in the film, but the actions seem out of Nelly’s control, unlike the book. These repeated events within the film, that seem like minor mistakes on the part of Nelly, take away a level of depth from her character.
Nelly’s relationship to Cathy and in turn to her daughter, the other Catherine, is paramount to the course of action that takes place in the book, and what’s more is that she delivers almost all of the reader’s information of what has transpired. Meaning that if Nelly is construing herself as blameless in relating this information to Lockwood, she may be even more unreliable than the reader could expect. Nelly delivers a narrative in which the downfall of the story rests in Catherine and Heathcliff’s actions, but the reader can not be assured of that, especially if they find Nelly at all questionable. It is this deft handling of the relationship between characters that makes Brontë's novel a classic example of the downfalls of passion and the reality of human nature. Instead of delivering this same premise, the film offers a pared down tale of tragic love and a villainous anti-hero.
The exclusion of Nelly Dean as a central character with many facets to her personality seems representative to the rest of the film’s handling of characters. Cathy’s character seems to become more pliant, and flat. She seems to care less for Heathcliff than in the novel, and she is more good-natured, not doing anything particularly mean-spirited until she delivers Isabelle to Heathcliff’s wrath by telling him of her sister-in-law’s feelings. This Cathy does not seem to share in the depth of emotion that avails the novel’s Cathy. She is most memorable in this iteration as giggling incessantly and wearing an ambivalent expression. Almost every character is depicted as less complicated than they are in the novel. The only character who seems to escape this is Heathcliff, whether by necessity of having at least one character remaining fleshed out, or by Ralph Fiennes superior depiction, he remains a quintessential Byronic hero.
While the movie as a whole remains a weak adaptation of the original text, Ralph Fiennes’ Heathcliff is true to the original. He is equal parts callous, persecuted, and charming. He has that balance of magnetic and repulsive energy that qualifies him as a Byronic hero. He balances on the knife-edge of being cruel, but showing true caring for Cathy, and later Hareton. He is helped along, in this version, by the absolute flatness of the other characters. It is easy to ignore his cruelty towards the Linton’s because the audience is given little chance to sympathize with Edgar and Isabelle. Where in the book, the reader might value Edgar’s tolerance, patience, and kindness, the film delivers a side-character who does little but separate the two characters the audience wishes to be together. Therefore, Heathcliff has no competition to be the central figure of this story. The audience may not always like him, but they can appreciate his actions and what has brought him to be the man that he is. In this way, Kosminsky delivers a Heathcliff that is true to the original. Being true to the original is also easiest for Heathcliff’s character, as he delivers the most dialogue that is verbatim from the books text such as when Catherine dies and he says to Nelly
“I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” (pp. 130).
This helps to create a deeper connection between book Heathcliff and film Heathcliff, so that he appears most in sync with the novel, unlike the other characters.
The varied quality of the depiction of each character in the film leaves it lacking as an adaptation of the novel. It is faithful in regards to the source material but only in so far as that the characters and story remain relatively the same, there is certainly not the same exploration of human nature or depth of passion that Emily Brontë had created in Wuthering Heights.
Another great division between the novel and the film are the anachronisms present in Kosminsky’s adaptation. Anachronisms are things belonging to another time period than the one their used in. While the audience can take no great fault in the majority of the production design for the film, there is one great difference that is so obvious as to be disruptive. Almost every central character has a late 1980s haircut in the middle of a Romantic period piece. Catherine’s haircut is by far the most distracting with its layered and teased appearance. Women’s Romantic-era hairstyles are almost always parted down the middle, and styled intricately to the sides. It is unlikely that you would see a woman of Catherine’s station with her hair down, as she appears in several scenes, and certainly not with no discernable part or distinct braiding or styling. Her and Isabelle both have that 80s permed look, that does not allow for a part and is very high off the crown of the head. Edgar also has a hairstyle not suited to the time period. His wavy golden locks, and clean-shaven face, are far more suited to the late 1980s television show Baywatch than they are to a Romantic-era upper-class Yorkshire man. To suit the time period, the men should have short, curly hairstyles, and mutton chops. The lack of accuracy is incredibly noticeable in regards to the hair design because the rest of the film, from house interiors to costume pieces, are very passably Romantic in style. This lack of consistent styling marks the film as very other from the book. The book is consistent in its time period, whereas the film is markedly a product of the late 20th century.
The differences between Emily Brontë's novel, Wuthering Heights, and Peter Kosminsky’s film, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, can be categorized by two major differences. The change of genre from novel to film, and the desire to appeal to an audience from an entirely different time period. A greater amount of changes can be attributed to the change from book to film, which as mentioned earlier, requires a much more condensed narrative to be depicted. While films can have a great amount of depth, it is often the case that adaptations of novels become much less intricate than their source material due to the nature of each genre. This comes down to the common idea in storytelling of “showing” versus “telling”. Novels, and other written works, employ a great amount of showing and telling, and possess a much greater ability to utilize “telling” by allowing the narrator to deliver much needed information to the readers. Films, on the other hand, have to rely almost solely on “showing” due to the fact that narration is not commonplace and becomes boring to the audience if used excessively. In changing the genre of a story from novel to film, the artistic team behind the film must either be creative in delivering essential information through “showing” or choose to leave that information out.
In the case of Kosminsky’s Emily Brontë's Wuthering Height, the artistic team seems to have chosen to leave most of this information out, rather than try to include it. Part of that choice certainly has something to do with the fact that Wuthering Heights covers a long time period, which is not particularly accessible to film, and part of it has to do with making the narrative into something easily palatable by the audience. In comparison to the book, the film was released in a time when there are many methods of entertainment available to the masses. There were many ways that their audience could have chosen to spend their time, and so the film’s team tried their best to appeal to their audience by offering up a dramatization of a classic romance, in which they delivered the whole story but without the complexity that was deemed unnecessary for this streamlined version. This is not to imply that Brontë's novel would have been an automatic success due to the fact that there were not so many forms of entertainment available, it is only to say why such choices may have been made.
The other factor that was relevant in changes to the story, is that the film was being marketed to an audience of an entirely different time period. It seems as though fewer of the changes stem from this reason, but they are still present. The hairstyles being incorrect to the Romantic period is one change already discussed. This was certainly a choice by the production designer to appeal to the audience of the time by having relevant haircuts be on prominent display. In addition, the language of the film is perhaps not as accurate to the period as the novel, especially in scenes that don’t draw on the exact text of Wuthering Heights. There is also a certain lack of gravity to the manner of speaking that is not reflective of the novel but of contemporary society. There is an element of casualness to the speech and manner of the characters that has to do with the time period the film was produced in, rather than the time period it is depicting. Period films often fall short in truly delivering a view of that time period due to the limitations of actors. It is almost impossible to mimic the stance and exact pronunciation of a previous time period because how words are shaped in the mouth change over time and it can be very difficult to recreate. In this film in particular, Juliette Binoche who plays both Catherines cannot even form her words in a manner that gets rid of her French accent completely, so she is almost certainly not speaking in the same manner as someone from Yorkshire in the Romantic period.
The change of genre and the different time period in which the work is produced is very relevant to the differences between the film and the novel. They shape a great deal of the differences between the two, though not all. There are certainly adaptations that manage these factors much more effectively, and in truth the differences between contemporary works and classic works are often softened by the fact that audiences wish to see and read works that are in their own version of English with their own mannerisms, so the differences in time period are much less stark. This only goes for subtle changes, however, and does not make up for choices made to distinctly highlight the differences, such as the hairstyles in this film.
Though Kosminsky’s adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights was a trailblazer in the fact that it depicted the entire narrative through both generations of characters, rather than ending at Catherine Earnshaw’s death, it is still a very weak adaptation of the novel. In further examination of the differences between the original and the adaptation, it would be interesting to look at how the gender of the creator’s effects which elements of the story are deemed important. With more knowledge of Kosminsky’s work, you could better assess whether his being a male director was part of what made his depiction of these female characters so un-lifelike. The film certainly does not do justice to the relationships that Brontë has built in her novel, and while Wuthering Heights is likely to remain a classic, this film adaptation is almost certain to fade into obscurity.
Bronte, Emily Jane, et al. Wuthering Heights: the 1847 Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. Norton, 2003.
Kosminsky, Peter, director. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Paramount Pictures, 1992. Film.