Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights has at least two things in common with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris: both films are fully achieved, highly original works of art, and both are magnificent examples of what a proper film adaptation of a novel should be. An adaptation that is really little more than an illustration of the original text might be an enjoyable way of idling away a Sunday afternoon but as art it is essentially pointless. I loved John Hilcoat’s 2005 movie The Proposition, and couldn’t wait to see his take on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In the event the film came as rather a disappointment. It was just like the book, only without McCarthy’s apocalyptic prose; the pictures without the text, if you like. All it did was make me long to read the novel again.
Tarkovsky’s Solaris sheds new light on Lem’s novel precisely because it is such a highly charged, idiosyncratic, wilfully inaccurate adaptation, a variation on the original theme, Tarkovsky’s convoluted riff on Lem’s simple twelve-bar blues. (For anyone who’s interested, AT’s Solaris jockeys constantly for position with Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock as my favourite film of all time.)
Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights was written in 1846. It is more than a hundred and fifty years old. It is intensely verbal, its phrases and expressed sentiments seem to rip and tear at the conventions of the English novel as they then existed, and nothing truly comparable with it would come out of these islands until Hardy’s Jude the Obscure fifty years later. I love all the Brontes. In terms of role models they always held, and still hold, a treasured place in my heart. I loved Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Villette from the age of twelve. But much though I tried I neither liked nor understood Wuthering Heights until I was in my late twenties. I was repelled by its cruelty, its stark pessimism, what I saw as its nastiness. As my mother put it recently (she was rereading the book while visiting my brother in Sydney, Australia) no one in it is very nice. All too true. But there is no denying that Wuthering Heights could honourably be described as the first modern English novel.
Andrea Arnold has taken Emily Bronte’s scorching verbal excesses and transformed them into a film so sparse on dialogue that you could almost watch the first hour of it with the sound muted and not miss a thing. Yet somehow, magically, she has caught and distilled the essence of the novel, illuminating it with her own unique vision and reminding us, in so doing, how very contemporary it is. I have never seen the Northern moors so completely understood by the camera as in Arnold’s movie. Here we have a landscape that is bitter, chillingly resplendent in a way that reminds us as so few films do of what the land is like when there are no toilets, running water, electricity or central heating. It is beautiful for a moment, but its people live upon it as precariously as the beasts they tend and kill. The Lintons’ mansion is a pretty dolls’ house that could be swept into ruin with one slight change in circumstance of its owners; Wuthering Heights itself seems just two steps from dereliction.
There’s plenty of politics in Wuthering Heights of course – you could even call it solidly Marxist. But essentially it’s the story of a personal feud that ends in the annihilation of both parties. The final frames of Arnold’s film are, in many ways, as bleakly corrosive as anything Hilcoat showed us in The Road. And yet, as with Arnold’s two previous features Red Road and Fish Tank, I came away exhilarated. In her recent interview for The Guardian, Arnold told of how the shoot took so much out of her that at one point it reduced her to tears. It is this level of personal commitment to her material that shines through in every frame. What Arnold has given us is not a period adaptation or even a romantic drama but a testament to the survival of the artist, a homage to Emily Bronte that both reminds us of her achievement as a novelist and confirms that Arnold herself is an artist of comparable stature.