Wuthering Heights: there’ll be another one along in a minute (1)

ITV screened the latest shot at an adaptation (or, as the announcer said, twice, ‘adaption’, a word I spent many hours annotation in my students’ work) of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, earlier this week, over two nights, and with a ridiculous number of adverts (45+ minutes out of 180, according to my DVD recorder). It was filmed last year, has already been seen in the USA, and is out on DVD tomorrow; it was directed by Coky Giedroye.

Film-makers have been trying to do WH since 1920 (there is a lost silent version), and you can see why. Of all the ‘classic’ Victorian novels, it is the closest in sensibility to the romantic horror genre (I’ve just invented it), and it is also, which many people forget, set in just two locations and the moor between them (in the novel, which also has extraordinarily few minor characters, characters are often heard talking about going to or coming back from Gimmerton, but no action takes place there). And I don’t have a purist view about adaptations. If you have to get it to fit two hours, you have to cut and slash. On the other hand, I am very very fond of WH and its incredibly brilliant and complex structure, and I love watching directors wrestle with it. I haven’t seen them all – this was my fifth, unless you count Cliff Richard’s disastrous video version of his stage musical Heathcliff, which, if you want a laugh, I urge you to purchase. There is another one coming out next year, directed by Peter Webber, and there’s a 1978 version (BBC)  which I’ve just bought on eBay. The 1962 version with Claire Bloom doesn’t seem to be available. I’ve seen 1939 (Wyler), 1970 (Fuest), 1992 (Kosminsky), 1999 (Skynner), and now this one.

Wyler’s, which was nominated for several Oscars, but only won one for cinematography (it was the year of Gone With The Wind), has dated badly. Olivier hams up Heathcliff, there is some interminable dancing, and (rather unfairly) I find it impossible to watch because Leo G. Carroll, who plays the servant Joseph, was best known later as the boss in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It chops out the second half of the novel. But this is nothing to what Fuest does. In the novel, Heathcliff returns from a stint at Cathy’s grave to face Hindley, Cathy’s brother, attempting to shoot him dead. Heathcliff smashes the window casement, and smashes Hindley’s head on the stone floor, before making the tea (a touch I have always liked). Fuest just has Hindley shoot Heathcliff dead, which is one way of reducing the plot, I suppose.

Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 version

Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 version

The traps are various. The first is that you have to decide what to do with the double narration (Lockwood, the aristo outsider, tells us what Nelly Dean tells him, and then comes back to hear what happens at the close). You have two biased and unreliable narrators in the novel. It is next to impossible to reproduce that effect. The problem with losing Lockwood is that (a) you lose one of the most famous scenes, the dream in which Lockwood, one of whose functions is to be the reader’s representative, imagines a child at the window calling out, and, grasping her hand, cuts it on the glass, and (b) you lose what many people miss about the novel – which is that Lockwood is a comedy act, an alien southerner whose twittering speeches show what an isolated life the other characters lead (he mistakes a heap of dead rabbits for some domestic cats!). Giedroye and Fuest cut him.

You also have to decide what to do with Joseph, whose barely penetrable dialect is one of the treats of the novel (I may be on my own here), but whose ferocity and bible-thumping is important in establishing what Heathcliff has to cope with. Joseph is also, in the novel, a necessary comedy. Nobody cuts him, but Giedroye almost silences him. In all the other versions, he is the snarling, unwelcoming side of Wuthering Heights (the place, not the novel, I mean).

I am warming up here: more on this tomorrow.


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