Pages Navigation Menu

A site by, for, and about Geek Girls!

Review & Rambling Rant: Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Wuthering Heights PosterDisclaimers at the end of this review*

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to adapt a novel by Emily Brontë without using a single one of Emily Brontë’s words. Amazingly, this has been done and done brilliantly! I refer, of course, to “The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights” (Monty Python, 1970). More recently, this challenge has been taken up by Andrea Arnold (2011)–with less success.**

The film is not all bad. In fact, parts are quite good…

The Good in Wuthering Heights (2011)

* Exploiting the “visual medium” of film to highlight the wild beauty, muck, and eighteenth-century rustic roughness of the Yorkshire moors. This is the only film that’s made me feel the vitality of Brontë’s description of her homeland. Within reason (see below), close-ups of dripping grass, spiders’ webs, mud, scribblings on chipped walls, and panoramas of wind and crags create a vivid realism.

* Casting Heathcliff as a racial Other — Finally. “But Heathcliff was white,” say both my parents in tandem. Well, yes, okay, in Brontë’s time and place “dark” and “Gypsy” and “Indian prince” could well have meant you’re a dark-haired, dark-skinned Caucasian from a non-English-speaking ethnic group. The point is that, in the book, he’s regarded as racially other. And a dozen films’ worth of casting him with white men, including Ralph Fiennes with ludicrously black hair, does not depict–or even really attempted to invoke–this racial otherness. In the twenty-first century, there is no excuse for such racism. Moreover, if the novel itself does not specify that Heathcliff is not Caucasian, it certainly does not specify that he is. It tells us he’s heavyset and dark and considered a “Gypsy.” He could, indeed, look East Indian or North African. Why must we default to white just because it’s one possibility and, thus, perpetuate the erasure of people of color? All praise to this film for acknowledging that race is an issue and making a person of color the lead.

Catherine and Heathcliff (2011)

Our heroes as young ‘uns — the strongest part of the film.

* Comprehending that the story is not about Cathy and Heathcliff having sex (a.k.a. being traditionally “in love”). This is one of the only versions I’ve seen that really gets that. And it finds a very interesting balance between intimate sensuality and a sort of fraternal sublimation of sexual tension that works well for the first segment of the film.

* Shannon Beer as young Cathy. She brought exactly the right kind of degendered, authentic, Northern-rustic wildness to young adolescent Cathy.

* Swearing: Brontë herself mentions “cursing.” She doesn’t give us the words, of course, but they were there, and they should be.

* Yorkshire accents. Yay! I’m glad Wuthering Heights movies, in general, have started to do this in their last couple of iterations. I’m not sure Brontë intended it: She certainly writes her leads in standard English and her servants in dialect in a typically 19th-century classist way. But it is classist, and the Earnshaws, if not the Lintons, probably would have had some regional lilt. This seems a reasonable interpretation.

Semaphore version of Wuthering Heights

Monty-Python’s well-executed paraverbal Wuthering Heights.

These are all real positives. Unfortunately, there are other bits…

The Bad in Wuthering Heights (2011)

* Using the “visual medium” of film as a substitute for telling the story. In moderation, the loving shots of the moors are exceptional. As constant cutaways used to replace dialogue, character interaction, and acting, they feel self-indulgent and exacerbate another problem…

* Poor pacing. This film is slower than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Almost everything is slow: the cutaways from plot-moving scenes to nature shots, the stares between characters, the lag time waiting for lines to be uttered, the shots of people walking down halls (vs. the more conventional cuts from point A straight to point B)…

* Telling the whole story from Heathcliff’s point of view. Foregrounding him is fine; he’s the protagonist, and it’s a powerful move in racial discourse to center the person of color’s point of view. But making him the only point-of-view character requires omitting many wonderful scenes and playing against the natural impact of others. For example, Cathy’s shock at seeing Heathcliff return after thinking he was gone forever is more impactful than Heathcliff’s shock at seeing Cathy in the sitting room where he knew she’d be sitting.

Wuthering Heights, 2011

Andrea Arnold’s less well-executed paraverbal Wuthering Heights

* Recasting. All adaptations of Wuthering Heights have the same problem: You have to swap out actors at some point to show the characters growing up…. Unless you chop off the early childhood part and have your characters meet as adolescents, a problematic choice in a story about early childhood bonding but one this film makes and–with a little suspension of disbelief for characters acting younger than their actors look–surprisingly sells very well. So why–since we’re already starting with actors who could almost pass as young adults and culminating with characters who are not more than twenty–why double cast them?

The two Heathcliffs have excellent continuity in appearance and acting. But by this token, why swap out actors at all just to switch from a lad who looks about fourteen to a lad who looks about eighteen? Why not split the difference and just use one actor?

With Cathy, the effect is the opposite. The two actresses have nothing in common but long, brown hair. Their faces, eye color, acting style, even accents are different. Everything that made Cathy “Cathy” is erased with this change. And in a story a major point of which is that love, real love, is between individual people–not symbols or archetypes or tropes or social roles or fantasies–but unique individuals, this loss of the individual is catastrophic.

Catherine from Wuthering Heights, 2011

Cathy: “Get me a couple of flags. Now.”

* Lack of dialogue, an issue that needs to be divided into three sub-issues:

1) Silencing the person of color. A black Heathcliff is a fantastic move, a black Heathcliff who is almost completely silent (silenced) not so much. In the novel, Heathcliff is a somewhat (not radically) taciturn child, but he grows into an extremely articulate man, and his ability to articulate himself is one of his main means of assuming the role of “gentlemen” and, thus, overcoming his racial othering. Conversely, portraying “the black man” as almost silent is a bit like “killing the lesbian”: whatever the intent behind it, it falls into an unfortunate recapitulation of a long history of denying privilege to a representative of an underprivileged group.

2) Failure to exploit the text. In my opinion, Emily Brontë wrote some of the most beautiful, powerful, and quotable dialogue in the history the English novel. Trimming it, simplifying it, updating obsolete words in it to make it accessible to a modern audience in the movie medium, I understand. Completely excising it to replace it with shots of people staring at each other and cutaways to thistle stems, as if this were some twenty-first century silent movie, is stupid and a principal reason that none of the characters in this adaptation has real weight, with the partial exception of the young Cathy–who also has more lines than just about any other character.

3) When dialogue is there, it’s often poor. Two sub-types:

a) Anachronism–by which I don’t mean an update to remove archaisms. An update to remove an archaism (I’m quoting from memory) is in the 1970 version when they swapped out “thriven” for “grown stronger.” The original is better, but okay, maybe it’s confusing to some viewers.

An anachronism is a wording that was not remotely in common use in Yorkshire at the end of the eighteenth century. Wikipedia informs me that “okay/O.K.” began to be prominent in the US around 1840 (roughly 40-50 years after the setting of Wuthering Heights and in a different country). Allan Metcalf, in an article for the BCC writes that “O.K.” first became mainstream in the early twentieth century (about 100 years after Wuthering Heights, still in America). Yet we have at least two “OKs.” There’s also “come on,” in the sense of “Oh, come on, tell me the truth,” and “hold on,” as in “wait,” which might have existed but were certainly not standard.

Why does this matter? We update language all the time. Ben Hur is set in Roman Judaea, but the movie is in English. No film set in England in medieval times uses Middle English. Even a story set in the Renaissance is only going to use Shakespearean English if it’s Shakespeare.

The difference is that in these cases, anachronism is necessary to clear communication. Most of us don’t understand Chaucerian English or even Shakespearean English with any ease. But the late 18th century was not so long ago, and while daily English vocabulary has changed a lot, there are more than enough standard English words current then and now to express concepts in plain English without obvious anachronism. How about “fine” for “O.K.”? How about “very well”? How about “just a moment” for “hold on”? How about “oh, really” or “oh, honestly” for “oh, come on”? None of this difficult, and there is no justification for this blatant disregard for setting and context. Likewise, there is no justification for…

b) Really bad lines. I could count on my fingers the number of times this film alluded to actual lines from the novel, but here’s one of the closest “translations.” From the book, Heathcliff to Cathy: “Having leveled my palace, don’t erect a hovel and complacently admire your own charity in giving me that for a home” (151). Here’s the same bit from the film, paraphrased from memory: “You treated me badly. Don’t think you can be nice now and that makes it okay.” Do I even need to explain what’s wrong with this? (Because if I do, I will be plunged into a state of deep cultural despair.)


Despite some aspects that were refreshingly different and compelling, the film as a whole was a failure, largely because it chose to replace Brontë’s brilliant language with lots of shots of scenery and actors staring. If it had been a 15-minute music video homage to Wuthering Heights, it might have been a work of genius, but as an adaption of the novel, it’s a poorly realized oddity.

Out of the six or so English-language adaptations I’ve seen, Robert Fuest’s 1970 film starring Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff is still the frontrunner, if only by virtue of poor competition. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it captured something of Cathy and Heathcliff, and if you want to see a Wuthering Heights film, I recommend it.

Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff

Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff: Kinda, sorta goodish.

Disclaimers and Notes:

* I walked out on this movie. I walked about 2 hours in (about 5-10 minutes from the end), right after the big Cathy-Heathcliff deathbed scene. I probably would have stuck it out if my mother had not whispered at about 1.55 hours, “I want to go home.” “So do I,” I whispered back but made her wait for the Cathy and Heathcliff scene.

* No Wuthering Heights film will has ever satisfied me and none ever will. I am an avid fan of the book, which I consider one of the greatest works ever, and no film will ever live up to my expectations. I am by no means a “neutral reviewer” or a “fresh viewer.”

** Okay, literally, it uses a handful of Brontë’s words.

Further discussion of Wuthering Heights as a film:

Here is Joshua Rothman’s discussion of the film (and adapting Wuthering Heights in general), far more thoughtful and less ranting than mine. I share his admiration of the 1954 Mexican adaption, Abismos de Pasión:


Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Ed. David Daiches. New York: Penguin, 1985.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *