In the "Heights": Director Andrea Arnold on Adapting Emily Brontë's Magnum Opus

In the "Heights": Director Andrea Arnold on Adapting Emily Brontë's Magnum Opus
Director Andrea Arnold
(Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

For many readers, classic works of literature are sacred texts not to be tampered with. That’s not true of director Andrea Arnold, whose new adaptation of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” takes the emotional highs and lows of the tragic novel and brings them down-to-earth, often quite literally. This is no traditional costume-drama: The film revels in the mud-filled moors, windswept hills, and intense natural elements of the location, the camera capturing everything with documentary-like focus. Much like her previous film, 2009’s East London-set “Fish Tank,” “Heights” is tense and skittish, taking the story of the mysterious Heathcliff and the headstrong Cathy into new territory. Arnold, once again working with young actors, casts a black actor in the role of Heathcliff (his race is ambiguous in the book) and tells the story through his eyes, jettisoning the sweeping romance to address themes of race, otherness, and belonging not often discussed in relation to Brontë’s novel. Leaning heavily on the first half of the book, Arnold bears down on elements from the book that resonated with her – the frustration and isolation of youth, burgeoning sexuality – and crafts an acutely personal vision of “Wuthering Heights.” ARTINFO spoke with Arnold about starting a film with images, the impact and influence of location, and why she doesn’t plan on going digital anytime soon.

What was the first thing that struck you about “Wuthering Heights?”


I read the book when I was about 18 or 19, quite a long time ago, and my feeling about the book then was -- well, I think I got that thing that everyone gets from “Wuthering Heights.” They think they know it. The book is such a part of our consciousness, it’s always around, and it’s something everyone sort of knows about even if they hadn’t read it. I’d seen an adaptation, the Laurence Olivier one, when I was a kid, so I always knew of it. When I read the book, I thought it was going to be a love story, and then when I read it, it wasn’t really that, it was something more uncomfortable, a bit more troubled. I remember at the end feeling very unsettled, but intrigued as to why I felt that way. And it’s full of things that are quite fascinating, but you also can’t really get a handle on it. I’d always been intrigued by it. I’d thought about making it, but I’d been on a journey with my films, one after the other, there was no real game plan or anything. Then my agent e-mailed me and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing “Wuthering Heights?”’ My ears pricked up. It was almost from that moment that it feels like I didn’t look back. What was funny is that I joined something that already had a bit of history; it had been in development. An earlier version had Michael Fassbinder and Natalie Portman. I joked about getting both of them to do the voice overs in the film, just so we can say they’re in it.

Then you can put their names on the poster.

Right, put their names on it and make some more money [laughs]. I was the third director on the project, so it had a momentum. There was already a script, so I joined something that was already going. It was a bit of a weird thing to do – I wouldn’t recommend it, really. The momentum was good because it meant the film was going to happen, but I really had to start again and that was really tricky. I had to pull everything back and write the script again, quickly.

As a filmmaker, do you start with an image? Was there an image that jumped out at you from the book?

Yeah, I had one. I always have an image for my films that is the key image. Whenever I lose my way, if I can go back to the image I remember, for me, what it’s all supposed to be about. The image for “Wuthering Heights” was of a big moor at twilight, when the land goes into the sky, almost blurring into the sky. You see this big creature on the moor – it’s two images, in a way, because you see it in the distance and you think it’s a large animal, but then you come in closer and you see that it’s a man, he’s got all this fur on his back. When we actually went to do the scene – which in my mind was this huge wide-shot, a beautiful thing – it was bright sunshine, we had about ten minutes to do it, and we didn’t have enough rabbits. It was not anything like I imagined. But, you know, that’s filmmaking.

The film is very physical and uses the landscape to convey that in its images. How much does the location influence the rhythm and feel of the film?

Lots. I quite like to find a location and then start thinking about how I’m going to incorporate it. We didn’t have a lot of choices on the house because I wanted to use a real house. First, we looked around Haworth, where the Brontë’s are from. The moorland around there is actually very different, it’s more like the sea. It goes on and on and on. You don’t know where the end of it is – it really feels like how she describes it in the book. Unfortunately, that area was very much part of the industrial revolution, so it was very built up, and there’s very few places around there that are isolated. So, we went to the Northfield moors. There were some isolated places there, and it’s slightly more dramatic.

Are you thinking about camera movement and lighting choices before you get to the location?

I have certain sort of ideas about how I want it to feel and then when we get to the place, which speaks back to you. When we did the [camera] tests, I wanted to use no lights at all, but that’s not a very popular idea. It’s really black, especially with film. I had this idea that maybe we could use candles and I really love some of the stuff we did in the tests.

Why is shooting on film important to you? I’m sure somebody has tried to convince you to shoot a film digitally.

Film sometimes feels more real; even though digital has this very real feel to it, there is something about film that feels even more real. I can’t describe it. You feel like you can put your hand in and touch things. Obviously, you always try to pick the right thing for the film. I always want it to be quite visceral and I think film just feels more physical, it feels less two-dimensional. You know the ends of film, when they explode at the end? That’s a sort-of beautiful, chemical, organic, one-off thing. I just love it. I can’t imagine I’m going to go off it, really. In fact, I’m thinking of shooting the next thing on 16mm.

What was your experience working with so many young actors? The performances were all very natural.

It was quite a difficult choice. When I read the book I realized the childhood is really important, and a lot of the book takes place when they are really young. For me, that was interesting. I think what happens to Heathcliff later, his longing for childhood, is a really important element of what goes on. It’s less about love and more about longing and belonging, about being part of something. Everyone says it’s about love, but I think it’s more complicated than that, a bit more complex. I thought I might cast 18-year-olds to play young, and then old, because I hate the idea of changing people. But when I looked at 18-year-olds, they are in that time between being young and being old. I thought changing the actors in the middle was a horrible thing to do, but it was a compromise. So we went to schools and places like that. I tried to cast kids who were like the characters anyway.

You mentioned the longing in the story, and I wanted to discuss that idea in terms of the editing. There is a sudden temporal shift in the film, but you then show bits from the past, cutting back to the childhood of the two main characters.

That came from something I wrote in the script, actually. When I wrote the ending, when he’s laying on the ground, I wrote this scene where he was laying there and he’s thinking about her and she walks into the room, as a child. There was something really powerful about it, about him thinking about that time. I realized it’s important that when Heathcliff goes back, it’s not just about him wanting her, it’s about him trying to get back to sometime in his life when he felt, perhaps, at peace. He’s horribly abused, of course, but he has these moments when they go off together. We all have that when we’re kids, don’t we? Roaming – I certainly did anyway. Going out roaming and having the most blissful day. A day where things are endless and you don’t have responsibility – just being. When you’re older you have less of that, and for me, him wanting to go back to this time was not just about her and about love but about something intangible we all have. I really recognized it and thought it was important. I still don’t think I really achieved what I wanted, but who knows – these things are a journey and you don’t know how it’s going to be.

Are you interested in adapting other work in the future?

No. I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t like it [laughs].

Is it just that you enjoy starting from scratch?

This whole thing was like an experiment. It came out of the blue. It was like an adventure. But I really like making up my own stories and for better or worse it’s what I’m going to do. 

Read J. Hoberman's review of "Wuthering Heights" at ARTINFO's Movie Journal.