In an era of filmmaking where producers and moneymen seem shyer than ever of original screenplays, hungry for the built-in audience of a known quantity, “This again?” is a question we seem to find ourselves asking on a weekly basis. That may most frequently be in response to high-concept Hollywood franchises and superhero movies, but it’s no less applicable to the classic literary adaptation. This autumn alone has brought us new versions of oft-filmed chestnuts in “Anna Karenina” and “Great Expectations,” with Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” narrowly scuttling out of the fray; each one invites a fresh round of comparisons, with varying assertions of redundancy or reinvention.
It’s all the more impressive, then, that British director Andrea Arnold’s pared-back, wind-whipped and wholly remarkable adaptation of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” – which itself premiered only months after Cary Fukunaga’s fresh take on another standard from the Brontë family canon, “Jane Eyre” – feels both very new and very necessary indeed. If Arnold’s film, already on release in New York and opening today in Los Angeles, feels to some extent like the first true version of this dog-eared Yorkshire romance, that could be because it’s the first film to realize that the story of farmgirl Cathy and founding Heathcliff’s unfettered, ultimately damaging passion isn’t really a romance at all.
That was a discovery Arnold – whose stylized approach to British social realism earned her an Oscar for her short film “Wasp” and Cannes prizes for her first two features, “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” – made when she read the book for the first time as a teenager. “I’d seen the Laurence Olivier-William Wyler film as a kid, and it really got under my skin,” she remembers. “But there’s this widespread idea that it’s a traditional, passionate love story, which that film supports. So when I read the book, that’s what I was expecting. But it’s a different beast altogether: raw, difficult, troubling, brutal, cruel – sadomasochistic, even. It’s an unsettling read, and I think part of its enduring attraction is that it’s so hard to get a handle on it, to fathom exactly what’s going on.”
So when, over thirty years later, she was approached to direct a fresh adaptation, Arnold was immediately eager to put the novel, as she’d encountered it then, on screen. “What I tried was not necessarily to do a faithful adaptation of the story,” she explains, “but to capture the essence of what Emily wrote, to honor that rawness. People ask why I left the second half of the story out, but that’s not really the point to me: when you’re adapting such a long, dense work, of course you have to make some tough decisions. I was more concerned with preserving feeling.”
To some degree, however separated by era, “Wuthering Heights” feels like a natural follow-up for Arnold from “Fish Tank,” which was also sensually preoccupied with the unruly impulses of a strong-willed teenage girl, with the tower blocks of Essex doubling for the muddy Yorkshire moors. Arnold, who admits to having felt “jealous” of previous directors attached to the project before her, certainly felt the connection was an obvious one, and doesn’t quite agree with those who call her latest either a departure for her, or radical in itself.
“I wasn’t attempting to do something reactive, or to be radical,” she admits. “I was just attempting to make it my own way, the way I normally make films. When I came on board, I didn’t know exactly what it meant or what I was getting into, but I just had this very instinctive reaction to it – I’d always had this thing about the book and wanted to have a go, even though in some ways I knew it was a bonkers thing to do.”
Indeed, Arnold – whose previous films have all been from her own original screenplays – believes literary adaptation in general is a foolhardy enterprise: “The whole point of books is that everyone who has read it has already effectively filmed it in their mind. Presenting your own vision against all that is a bit mad.” Also unfamiliar for her was boarding a project that had been in development for some time: “There was already history there, and I really needed to start it from scratch, to make it mine – but I had to do it fast! I believe in speed, to some extent: in film, everyone can be so deliberate and cautious, and that can kind of kill things creatively. Instinct is a very true way of making decisions. I both love and don’t love having to rely on it. But you learn the most from the trickiest experiences.”
Arnold famously takes a similarly gut-led approach to casting, having drawn startling performances in the past from young and/or non-professional actors. She didn’t waver in this preference on “Wuthering Heights”: three of the four actors cast as the younger and older versions of Heathcliff and Cathy had never acted before. The fourth, feline-eyed up-and-comer Kaya Scodelario, was best known for a regular in UK teen TV drama “Skins.” Arnold was determined that her ensemble reflect a youthful recklessness in the story that previous adaptations, often cast with established thesps, hadn’t. At one point, inspired by a chance sighting of a hoodie-clad “modern Heathcliff” on the moors, she even considered setting the story in the present, but instead accepted the challenge of making a generationally transferrable period piece.
“I wanted them to be as young as they are in the book, as I think that youth was integral to what Emily was writing,” she says. “I think she was responding to so many of her peers being married off as young women and losing that independence. It’s a coming-of-age story, really, about the hangups and ties and responsibilities that come with being an adult. So I enjoyed exploring their childhood and their adolescence, which I imagined in universal terms. One of the things people keep mentioning is the scene where Cathy licks Heathcliff’s back: that’s me imagining what I’d be getting up to in that situation. It’s the most ‘me’ moment in the film, I think.”
Proving more of a talking point than the youth of the actors, however, was Arnold’s decision to cast two black actors as Heathcliff – again, a move that some called radical, but actually honors Brontë’s text, which explicitly refers to the character’s dark skin. “I was surprised no one had done it before,” she says, admitting that she knew it would prompt unwarranted discussion. “People might be more influenced by what they’ve seen in films than what’s on the page in this matter. To me it seemed the natural thing to do: isn’t it better than putting boot polish on Laurence Olivier? And the irony is that Merle Oberon, who played Cathy opposite Olivier, was actually of Asian origin!”
As for Scodelario, Arnold had never seen an episode of “Skins,” but knew immediately upon meeting her that she had found her Cathy. “It’s funny,” she says. “You don’t really know why you make these decisions at the time, but later, as you get to know them, you work out why you did it. I felt very strongly about Kaya and Shannon [Beer, who plays the young Cathy] – even though they don’t look strongly alike, they have the same wild spirit, and that’s Cathy’s spirit. It’s very interesting how you can read that in someone without really knowing them. I did the same on ‘Fish Tank’: it took me exactly one second to cast Michael Fassbender in that.”
That intuitive approach, she says, doesn’t change much whether she’s looking at professional or amateur actors. “Obviously it’s a bit more difficult with non-pros, since you don’t know if they’ll actually be able to meet your demands. But I have this faith in a face. When I see someone like James [Howson], or like Katie [Jarvis, the star of ‘Fish Tank’], I just see this vulnerability, this hidden anger. It’s in their DNA. And I believe that if you’re going to make cinema, which is so often about great faces, you have to believe in the face first of all.
“Acting is about pretending at some level, and I don’t really want people pretending in my films. But you have to look after them very carefully: they may be quite vulnerable and you’re asking them to enter this very strange experience. And you just don’t know how it’s going to work out, for them or for you. It’s a massive risk. But I like risks. As money gets more scarce in the industry, people are getting more nervous, but I can’t feel safe when I make films.”
Arnold doesn’t mind admitting, however, that the landscape is as significant a character as any in her take on the story: “I think we have this very benign view of nature as this pretty pastoral thing we can go walking in and it’s all lovely. But nature can be really brutal and selfish: in that way, it’s more like us than we realize. So I thought it would be interesting to make a film where, visually, the relationship between the characters and their environment reflects that likeness.”
Enter Robbie Ryan, Arnold’s loyal director of photography for almost a decade. The woozy fluidity and light-play of his lensing has been invaluable to all her films, but it reaches new levels of mastery in “Wuthering Heights,” in which his exquisite rendering of Yorkshire’s heavy pearl-colored skies and dew-glittered grass deservedly earned him the Technical Grand Prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Arnold has adored him since the first day of shooting on “Wasp,” when he greeted her absurdly difficult shot concept that required him to run backwards down a stairwell with a handheld camera – “I don’t think these things through very practically” – with a casual nod.
“I just knew then and there that he was my man,” she laughs. “Just from the way he holds the camera, he’s got such respectful way of framing people – he looks at them with such love and care. We have our moments when we fight about things: I’m always pushing for more reality, and he’s always wanting to make things more beautiful. And I don’t want things to be too pretty all the time. So we push and pull in a happy way.”
Though she’s pleased at the accolades his work has received, she jokes: “I said to him, he’s not getting any bloody awards on the next film – I don’t want the cinematography standing out so much! I do genuinely believe that if one discipline stands out in a film, you’ve failed on some level. The film should be what you notice, not the cinematography, not the direction. Still, the thing about ‘Wuthering Heights’ is it has virtually no dialogue and no music, so I think the images do take precedence. I was pushing myself to see how far you could rely on imagery to tell a story and create emotion, without assistance from music or characters telling you what they’re feeling.”
When I mention that the constant presence of howling Yorkshire wind in the film is something of a score in itself, she agrees vigorously. “Exactly! When you’re up there you hear it through the door or the chimney, rattling the windows, whistling through trees – sometimes it’s gentle, sometimes it’s violent, sometimes it gets caught in the beams and makes this haunting noise. That to me is music. Why add violins to that? It’d be treachery.”
Arnold broke her own resolution, however, with another creative decision that has caused disagreement among critics: the use of a mournful ballad by folky chart-toppers Mumford & Sons, specially composed for the film, over the final shots and closing credits. “It’s controversial, that!” she says, slightly gleefully. “But here’s the thing: for me, when the credits come up, it’s like the world you’ve created is over, and now you have to look at a bunch of names. Most people are leaving the cinema anyway: they don’t care who the grip was. So I tend to feel the credits are like another land, and you can do what you like there. I could put music there. So I thought I’d give the audience a song as a present: they’ve sat through this, and it’s been difficult.”
Arnold tried out a few existing songs – and nearly settled on Morrissey’s ‘Unlovable’ – before a colleague suggested an original composition, whereupon a contact at Universal got the band to attend a screening of the film and write a bespoke song. “I thought they were quite a good fit, since they’ve got this country thing going on, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ is, in a funny way, a bit like a Western.
“I hemmed and hawed about bringing it in over the closing images instead of just over the credits, and that was a bit of an invasion. But after the sound mixer put it there, I just started crying and crying, because it had been such a hard experience and we were finally at the end of it. So I just thought, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I like it, and I’m just going to keep it here’” I knew some people would hate it because it’s not pure. But I can do what I like. We deserve a bit of a kiss after enduring all that brutality.”
Arnold’s other reward for enduring “Wuthering Heights” is a return to original screenplays: she’s guardedly writing one at the moment, and proud as she is of the film, she doesn’t think she’ll ever return to the adaptation well again. “Writing original stuff is hard, and books make it easier because there’s a world already conjured up,” she admits. “But if we’re talking about proper cinema surviving, we should be conjuring those worlds ourselves. Actually, let’s make a rule. No more adaptations ever.”