ITV’s new two-part television adaptation of Wuthering Heights finished screening here last night, and was worth a look, if inevitably disappointing in some aspects.
I wonder how it would have been understood by anyone who (a) hadn’t read the novel, and (b) hadn’t seen the first half, the previous week, because toward the end, the second episode jumped suddenly back to the “present” frame of the narration, without warning or explanation, using merely the churchyard scene we connect with the first Cathy’s death, to leap to the second Cathy’s marriage to Linton Heathcliff.
But technicalities like that aside (the novel is complex in terms of narrative framing and temporal shifts; so was this adaptation, though differently) what struck me most was the reinterpretation of Heathcliff in this production.
Tom Hardy was superb in the role, midway between the overly pretty Heathcliffs we’ve seen in the past and the grotesquely thuggish ones – he has perfected the kind of glazed stare that conveys barely controlled violence in a character, or intense emotion; there was no question of his believability in the role, as there has been for me with other actors attempting Heathcliff.
But the character seemed to me greatly softened by the script – perhaps in the belief that modern viewers could not tolerate the Brontë original. This Heathcliff, for instance, does not dispose brutally of Isabella Linton’s little dog upon eloping with her; he even tells Isabella he has “tried” to love her but could not, as if their elopement were not all along part of his plan for revenge.
We also lose Cathy’s full and astonishing speech about him not being a “rough diamond” (though many of the other striking speeches from the original text found their way in, even if necessarily recast in other dramatic moments).
Isabella herself was not shown to be the utter ninny of Brontë’s text but perhaps merely an overly romantic silly girl who pays the price of her infatuation (some of this has to happen; she becomes more dispensable, more background, without the contribution of her letter-narration, and understandably so given the time-constraints of television).
But Heathcliff softer? (More like Gordon Brown?!?) More believable this way, that Cathy (or anyone) would love him? Maybe it had to be so; yet it was apparently acceptable to show him near-strangling Hindley Earnshaw, with the clear suggestion of loss of control through grief, rather than from any vengeful wickedness.
A whole generation (if any bothered to watch it to avoid reading the novel, a common-enough student ploy!) will now perhaps make the mistake on their exams or essays of laying a gun beside Heathcliff’s head on his blood-smeared deathbed. I suppose the sound of gunshot was an effective dramatic device to bring the other characters running to discover H’s death – as well as according him a more active, decisive and “masculine” role in his own death (as opposed to seeming purely to will himself to death, as in the novel).
No adaptation completely satisfies everyone – and of course narratives must alter in the transition from page to screen, or into any other medium, for that matter. But it’s still interesting to ponder the “other” changes that slip in at the same time, that are less to do with medium than with contemporary attitudes, moral and otherwise, and criteria for credibility.
[For more detail on the changes made between the novel and this version, there's a good blog entry on it here]