Gothic Adaptations: Wuthering Heights

As 2018 marks the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth it seems like the perfect time to re-read Wuthering Heights (1847). Ahead of the next GRG, Hannah Moss (a self-professed Wuthering Heights super-fan) takes us through some of the best (and worst) adaptations of Brontë’s novel… 
No question about it Wuthering Heights has to be one of my all-time favourite novels, and in many ways it’s Emily Brontë I have to thank for reigniting a love of literature that has led to me pursuing a PhD focused on women’s writing. Uninspired by the prospect of studying Sons and Lovers (apologies to any D.H. Lawrence fans reading this), I was having doubts about whether I wanted to study English Literature at A-Level when I was handed a particularly battered old paperback edition of Wuthering Heightsto read over the summer holidays. I couldn’t put it down, and ever since this has been a novel I can return to again and again.
Fair to say Wuthering Heights was not what I had been expecting. I had made the assumption (as I suspect many others had done before me) that this was going to be some soppy love story about star-crossed lovers who are forced to meet in secret out on the moors. What I found in those tattered pages was a gripping family saga of obsession and revenge. Never before had I read a novel where every character was utterly detestable, and yet been so compelled to read on. If you’ve not read it before, I urge you to do so now. Persevere through the pages of sometimes impenetrable dialect representation (my Pan Classics edition from 1975 includes a glossary, explaining that ‘it would be a pity’ for readers outside Yorkshire ‘to miss Joseph’s sardonic humour), and you’ll see how powerfully Brontë writes of love and loss, rivalry and revenge. It’s often brutal, sometimes blasphemous, but always brilliant.

(Kate Bush singing her version – aka the best adaptation – of Wuthering Heights)

Now, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is arguably the best adaptation (dancing along to this is a highlight of the IGA Goth disco), but Hark A Vagrant’s comic strip adaptation has to be a close contender for the crown. If you’re after a quick and hilariously funny recap of the story, look no further – just don’t say ‘Lockwood was obviously high’ next time you come to submit a paper on Wuthering Heights.
Wuthering Heights has inspired so many artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers that there are too many adaptions to list them all here. There has been an opera, a ballet, a Bollywood musical, and an MTV teen movie, not to mention concept albums, comic strips, and countless literary reimaginings, including Alison Case’s Nelly Dean (2015) which tells the story from the servant’s perspective. Then there are the erotic retellings (Wuthering Nights), and forays into vampire fiction (Wuthering Bites), as well as Children’s stories (Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright). Basically, there are so many unanswered questions that there is ample scope for fanfic: what are Heathcliff’s origins and why does Mr Earnshaw bring him home to live at the Heights? What exactly did Heathcliff get up to during his prolonged absence and how did he make his fortune? Is Dr Kenneth a serial killer? Well, the harbinger of death sure doesn’t seem qualified to give medical advice!
However, the complex structure of the novel makes adapting Wuthering Heights for the big screen a notoriously difficult task. What’s more, the sheer number of characters all with variants of the same names can be difficult to keep track of! The 1939 film starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier tackled both problems by focusing on Cathy and Heathcliff. Setting the tone for many subsequent adaptations, this film doesn’t develop the plot to include the next generation of Lintons and Earnshaws. Yes, this makes life easier for the screenwriter, but a vital aspect of the novel’s revenge plot is lost as a consequence. Is Hollywood to blame for making Wuthering Heights seem like a love story when it is actually so much more than that? As for the most recent film adaptation, Wuthering High (2015) *groan*, well this version perhaps owes more to 90210 than its source text. Relocated to sunny California, Cathy is a kooky rich girl who falls for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Heath is a second-generation Mexican immigrant and Ellen Dean is the high school bitch, but the interesting choices end there. With stilted dialogue, no connection to the natural landscape, and no real sense of the supernatural, it barely feels like Wuthering Heights. This is not a Gothic adaptation. If you want Wuthering Heightswith a Gothic aesthetic, go for Peter Kominsky’s 1992 adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and rather giggly Juliette Binoche. Cue flashes of lightening, creaking floorboards and a soundtrack of screeching violins. Subtle, it ain’t.
(Filmic adaptations of Wuthering Heights)
Billed as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, this version frames the narrative with an introduction from EB in which she explains her authorial process from a ruined house she visits out on the moors: 
‘First I found a place. I wondered who had lived there, what their lives were like. Something whispered to my mind and I began to write. My pen creates stories of a world that might have been – a world of my imagining.’
It feels as if she’s been called upon to answer the same old question: how could a vicar’s daughter from Howarth possibly be able to write such a work of fiction? Including an actress playing Brontëin the opening scene does enable her to lay claim on a work that was originally published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, and allows her to answer the criticism she was subjected to, such as that which appeared in Graham’s Lady’s Magazine
‘How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.’[i]
However, with Brontë’s creation of the story forming another frame to the narrative taken over by Lockwood and then Nelly, her life and her fiction become inseparable, illustrating how the lives of the Brontës become entangled with the reception of their work.
Personally, I like the adaptation written by Peter Bowker and directed by Coky Giedroyc which aired on ITV in 2009 – and not just because it stars Tom Hardy *swoon*. This version opens from the perspective of Cathy’s ghost with a low level camera shot rushing through the moors up to the Heights. The breeze conveys Cathy’s eternal, elemental connection to the landscape more effectively than a glowing figure knocking on the window.

Heathcliff has to be one of the most covetable roles for an actor to land, and has been taken on by Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy – even Cliff Richard has had a go. Sally Wainwright’s Sparkhouse(2002) flipped the gender roles with Sarah Smart taking on the Heathcliff character in this modern day reimagining of Wuthering Heights, whilst Andrea Arnold responded to the debate surrounding Heathcliff’s race by casting a black actor, James Howson, to play the role in her 2011 film adaptation. We could easily spend the two hours of our next meeting debating who we’d cast as Heathcliff, but I want to take the opportunity to write about a form of paratextual adaptation, if you will – the cover art. 
(Different Wuthering Heights book covers)
Some people collect stamps, postcards or pin badges – I collect copies of Wuthering Heights. Friends and family know I’ll gladly give shelf space to their unwanted copies, and I can’t walk past a second hand bookshop without taking a look at what editions they’ve got in stock. I’m equally amused and bemused by how different artists have interpreted the novel. Cover designs tend to fall into one or more of the following categories: a passionate embrace between Cathy and Heathcliff; a mean and moody depiction of Heathcliff, who sometimes looks more like the Incredible Hulk; the ghost of Cathy knocking at the window; a windswept natural landscape; an equally windswept, or ruined Wuthering Heights; or if all else fails, Branwell Brontë’s portrait of the author is a popular choice. Then there are the covers that make absolutely no sense – why Emma Hamilton was chosen to grace the cover of the Bantam Classics edition is beyond me! From the pulp fiction of the 1970s to the somewhat controversial Twilight covers, each edition is a product of its time revealing where different publishing houses have chosen to position Wuthering Heightsin the literary marketplace. HarperCollins’ decision to use the imagery of a red rose on a black background (a snowdrop on the UK edition), imitating of the cover art of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga in the hope of cashing in on its success, brought accusations that the ‘classics’ were being ‘dumbed down’ to appeal to a young, predominantly female, readership.[ii]Whatever packaging the text comes in, the content remains the same, but the cover imagery does have the power to shape our expectations and suggest intertextual links. No doubt the Twilightconnection helped to bring a new generation of readers to the text, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. There’s no need to shame readers for their literary tastes or reading habits. However, I am curious how the novel is interpreted when it is read through the lens of being ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’? Does it encourage the reader judge the toxic relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff in a more favourable light? 

(‘Twilight’ versions of Wuthering Heights book covers)
To quote Lady Gaga, Cathy and Heathcliff have the ultimate ‘Bad Romance’. Their love is an obsession that eventually hurts everyone around them, but how do different adaptations portray such a complex relationship? Sounds like a suitably appropriate discussion for Valentine’s Day, right? We’ll be meeting 4-6pm in Seminar Room 8, Jessop West to discuss adaptations of Wuthering Heights, along with any other examples of Gothic Bad Romance you’d like to share. See you there!

Hannah ‘Wuthering Heights Super Fan’ Moss is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring the figure of the artist in Eighteenth Century Literature. While she is at home in every country house across the UK, this year you might find her wandering the Moors in search of Tom Hardy. 

[i]  From an anonymous review of Wuthering Heights published in Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, July 1848.