Peter Bowker seems to be the person to be on TV at the moment, as the screenwriter of Occupation, Desperate Romantics and now Wuthering Heights. Surprisingly (for me), I think of these three I probably think that Occupation was the best-written, but Wuthering Heights has a lot going for it. Emily Bronte’s novel is famously difficult to adapt for stage or TV, due in part to its scope of time and its complex narrative strands. Bowker has simplified, to some extent at least, by doing away with the narrator, Lockwood, and attempts to iron out aspects of narrative confusion which cause havoc for A-level students, but he’s also done some odd things, such as making the characters older, and setting the action about 50 years later than the novel does. Not sure why. However, I’m less concerned about playing fast-and-loose with the plot of a novel than I am about real events (yes, I mean Desperate Romantics and the three-person Brotherhood…)
The acting is good, and not too overdone; Tom Hardy is a believable Heathcliff, tortured and conflicted, while Charlotte Riley is a convincing Cathy, seeing attraction in both Heathcliff and the solid but surprisingly appealing Edgar, played by Andrew Lincoln. But the relationship between young Catherine and Linton is emphasised here by its prominence at the beginning of the first episode, which I see as a good sign, since the novel is ultimately about finding freedom from the past; the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is doomed, difficult, and in the novel not really even about sex. Despite the increased emphasis on sexuality in this adaptation, I think the Heathcliff/Cathy relationship is done quite well.
What this adaptation does really well, in my opinion, is to bring out the Gothic tone of the novel. Though some of the more disturbing aspects of the novel (such as Lockwood rubbing the ghost-Cathy’s wrist over a shard of glass) are missing, and replaced instead with the oddly necrophiliac scene of Heathcliff in Cathy’s grave, other aspects are teased out in a way which can actually be helpful to a consideration of the novel. It’s a truism of Gothic, for example, that it makes much of boundaries and thresholds, of “inside” and “outside”, and this version, contrasting the open (but potentially threatening) freedom of the moors with the claustrophobic interiors of the rather Gothic-looking houses, really makes the most of that. Looking in through, or out of, a window happens again and again; and follows a pattern: Cathy is on the inside; she joins Heathcliff, the Byronic outsider (and rather like Melmoth, I think) to peer in through windows, happy to be excluded. Eventually she gives in to convention and joins Edgar on the respectable inside, while Heathcliff watches angrily from outside. Eventually, she dies, and reaches in through a window from outside. Uncanny. Of course, these boundaries also relate to the boundaries of the self, which reach a problematic peak when Cathy explains, “I am Heathcliff”, no longer knowing where her own boundaries begin and end, and this is the central problem of the novel.
In The Times on Saturday, Kate Muir described this as “Wuthering Heights for the Twilight generation”, and she’s right. Linked by a Gothic tradition, it’s possible to read WH filtered through modern conceptions of Gothic literature, and end up with this adaptation as the result. Though it has its problems, I think this production should help to explain to the “Twilight generation” why WH is so popular, and why it deserves close attention.