Reframing Heathcliff: Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights

Though Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights is quite different from its source text in many ways, it is arguably the most authentic adaptation of the novel yet, at least in terms of emulating its experimental and subversive spirit, as its roots in the British film tradition of social realism simultaneously relates to and challenges modern audiences just as Brontë’s novel did her Victorian contemporaries. This article will explore British social realism’s role in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, discussing its influence on the novel’s narrative and Heathcliff’s character, and how these changes bolster the film’s examination of society’s relationship with outsiders, class, and race.

Arnold’s Wuthering Heights first deviates from Brontë’s novel narratively, for while the novel is narrated mainly by Nelly Dean (Simone Jackson), the servant somewhat participant in the Earnshaws’ and Lintons’ tragic tale, Arnold’s film places Heathcliff (Solomon Glave/James Howson) as narrator of his own story (Murray, 2012). This choice is rooted in the social realist tradition, for as Lawrence Napper notes, British social realist films “often [dramatize] the tension between their hero’s entrapment within a traditional working-class culture, and his desire for something ‘better’” (Napper, 2007). By this logic, Heathcliff is clearly the hero of Wuthering Heights, and Arnold treats him as such, rejecting Nelly’s moralizing and distancing narration in order to place Heathcliff as the authoritative figure on his struggle to overcome class division for love.

Arnold’s Heathcliff is not given narrative precedence through direct speech as Nelly is in the novel, but rather the power is bestowed upon him by Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Throughout the entirety of the film, Ryan keeps his camera trained on either Heathcliff or his point of view, filming him from all angles, often following him over his shoulder or capturing his direct line of sight so that audiences can see through his own eyes. Additionally, these shots of Heathcliff and his perspective are rather intimate, as the entire film was shot on a handheld camera, which not only results in unstable and raw takes, but also allows for extreme close-ups that expose his every action and expression, no matter how minute (Thomson, 2012). Thus, Ryan’s camerawork reveals Heathcliff’s mental state, tying audiences to him both emotionally and psychologically as well as physically. 

Tying the camera to Heathcliff also constructs him as a more sympathetic character by making viewers both privy to events Nelly never witnesses and ignorant of others only she does. For example, while Nelly relates Heathcliff and Catherine’s childhood connection, she was often absent when they played together; however, the film gives its audiences direct access to the twos’ private interactions both inside and outside Wuthering Heights, the most significant of these being their adventures on the moors in which their love for each other is most evident.

Yet, though Nelly is not a first-hand witness to Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love for one another, Arnold’s Heathcliff does not see Catherine’s day to day married life with Edgar Linton as Nelly does in the novel, and while Nelly does not describe it as a perfect union, she does feel their relationship to be a positive one headed towards joy and peace, saying: “I believe I may assert that they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness” (Brontë, 1847). Both of these examples demonstrate how using Heathcliff as a narrator paints him as a more sympathetic character, as the narrative is constructed around his experience in which he is only aware of his connection with Catherine, ignorant of the budding one between her and his rival Linton.

In addition to fashioning Heathcliff as his own narrator, Arnold further cements Heathcliff as a social realist hero by making two other narrative alterations to Wuthering Heights. First, while Arnold’s film does not have a frame narrative as Brontë’s novel does, the film is not perfectly chronological, beginning approximately where the film ends with Heathcliff mourning Catherine’s death. Thus, the audience is first introduced to Heathcliff at his lowest moment, which not only immediately calls upon viewers’ pity, but also frames the audience’s perception of the entire film as leading above all else to Heathcliff’s imminent downfall as opposed to those of the entire Earnshaw and Linton families.

Additionally, Arnold’s decision to end the film shortly after Catherine’s death further augments viewers’ sympathy for Heathcliff by denying them the knowledge of Heathcliff’s odious actions in the second half of the novel. While Arnold does not depict Heathcliff as a saint, portraying both his manipulation and abuse of Hindley, Hareton, and Isabella, she does not disclose the full degree of his malignant nature, arguably casting him a better character than he truly is.

Arnold’s narrative changes are not the only factors in fashioning Heathcliff into a more sympathetic character, as Arnold’s Heathcliff not only fulfils the role of the social realist hero as detailed earlier by Lawrence Napper because of his status, but also because of his race, as Arnold envisions him as an ex-slave from Liverpool (Murray, 2012), a fact which only serves to compound his tragic state of entrapment. This definitive stance on Heathcliff’s race is significant, for when its assertions are combined with the social realist tradition of prioritizing the downtrodden hero, Heathcliff becomes even more difficult to judge. Portraying Heathcliff as an ex-slave appeals to modern audiences’ sympathy because of the horrendous guilt and sorrow the history of African enslavement in Western society evokes. It is near impossible to judge Heathcliff when the lacerations of past whippings on his back are made visible and racial slurs and insults pour from his antagonists’ mouths, as Arnold’s script abandons nearly all of Brontë’s text for a cruder and more visceral modern speech.

In addition to eliciting an immediate reaction of horror and sadness from viewers, Heathcliff’s ethnicity also draws forth a more contemplative sense of melancholy, as his race is clearly tied to his struggle with class discrimination. This deepens and modernizes Brontë’s novel’s discussions of class, for modern Western societies still experience racial class division today as a result of the slavery and subsequent systematic racism prevalent throughout Western history. Thus, Arnold’s film subverts the sense of moral ambivalence surrounding Heathcliff in Brontë’s novel, instead replacing it with a greater propensity for pure pity and compassion. 

However, while altering Wuthering Heights’s narrative and declaring Heathcliff an African slave offers poignant commentary on Heathcliff’s class struggles, it also presents issues of moral judgement. Is his treatment of Hindley a justified revenge narrative for the enslaved, or is his reversal of cruelty, especially in his treatment of Hareton, an irresponsible perpetuation of hate, degradation, and classism? Additionally, how does changing Heathcliff’s narrative affect Wuthering Heights’s gender politics? Are Heathcliff’s misogynistic actions towards women, particularly his abuse of Isabella, forgivable due to his past trauma, or should he be held accountable for his actions? Thus, Arnold’s adaptation opens up new considerations and perspectives on class, race, slavery, history, and gender, proving that, whatever their souls are made of, Arnold’s film and Brontë’s novel share the same spirit, as both pieces are subversive works that challenge their audiences, calling them to re-examine societal and historical discourses.

Bibliography

Brontë, Emily. “Wuthering Heights”. In Wuthering Heights: the 1847 Text, Backgrounds,

and Criticisms, edited by Richard J. Dunn, 3-258. New York: W. W. Norton &

Company, Inc., 1991.

Murray, Johnathan. “Wuthering Heights.” Cineaste 38, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 57-59.

Napper, Lawrence. “British Cinema.” In Introduction to Film Studies, edited by Jill Nelmes,

302-334. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Thomson, Patricia. “Wild Passion.” American Cinematographer 93, no. 5 (May 2012): 42-

51.

Filmography

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)


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