Films, plays, comedy, an opera, a musical and a chart-topping pop song, Wuthering Heights has been adapted and distributed through popular culture like few other novels. I recently revisited Emily Bronte’s original and was, all over again, wildly impressed by its transgressive power. As I turned over the pages it also struck me just how thoroughly, hopelessly reductive each and every adaptation truly is. A literary tour de force is diluted, made less problematic – in short, sanitised – so that audiences can comfortably enjoy a love story with a few bitter, brutal twists.
This criminal dilution of Emily Bronte’s novel was perhaps exemplified by a TV documentary series about lovers in literature that was broadcast perhaps a year ago. As if believing they were so close to the radical edge that the cliff top was crumbling under the sheer weight of their high and mighty opinion, the documentary-makers informed viewers that Heathcliff was literature’s mad lover, offering no other understanding of the character or the text. As if that’s all there is to it. Kisses for crazies.
For a text that is, as one critic – Pauline Nestor – points out, full of unresolved tensions between ‘dream and reality, self and other, natural and supernatural, realism and melodrama, structural formality and emotional chaos’, the tendency to normalise or reduce Emily Bronte’s great work, which is far more ‘Romantic than romantic’, isn’t so much shocking as incorrigibly abysmal. It is a sheer lack of imagination that should be discouraged on pain of death. Or at least their financing ought to be withdrawn. Oh shit, we’re going to go round in circles now because shit sells. Perhaps Heathcliff’s words can be taken, albeit from another context, to speak to all those artistic charlatans who have so mindnumbingly misrepresented Bronte’s novel, and in the weakest light:
‘You are welcome to torture me to death for your amusement, only allow me to amuse myself a little in the same style, and refrain from insult as much as you are able. Having levelled my palace, don’t erect a hovel and complacently admire your own charity in giving me that for a home.’
Even if you must insist on misunderstanding Heathcliff – and I guess that is easy to do – don’t misunderstand me. I have no problem with actors, writers, filmmakers, theatre companies, adapting works and trying to add something – trying to put their seal of creativity on it – but has anyone really attempted this with Wuthering Heights? Time after time we are splattered with lovey-dovey mush in period costumes and English Rose accents that are supposedly made, ahem, ‘challenging’ with a fart’s whimper of understated, curmudgeonly, internalised angst and an overdone firework display of pathetic fallacy.
I’m going to shut up now. Before I bring devils, incest, necrophilia and Cliff Richards into it. And I must get washed.
Just stick with the novel.