Before I took a brief detour into the world of mainstream, commercial fare and launched into a long-rehearsed diatribe concerning the second half of Steven Spielberg’s career, I was to be found in this column doing one of two things: over-analyzing the difficulties of realizing plays through the scrutinizing gaze of the movie camera, and praising the merits of some exceptionally fine British cinema. One such piece that links strongly to what I’ve been contemplating this week is Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” What for me was one of the most stunningly impressive achievements of the film was the way in which Lynne Ramsay in her direction has recreated through visual means the sense of interiority attained by the intimate prose of Lionel Shriver’s novel. What works in a first person epistolary narrative with regard to shattering the divide between the reader and the inner emotions and thoughts of a literary character is often lost in the device of a film voice-over, which can at best only succeed in providing an idiosyncratic means of exposition. Instead, Ramsay employed a deeply expressionistic directorial style to externalize through imagery the inner state of Tilda Swinton’s protagonist: not only does the film play out in vignettes recalling the fragmented disambiguation of collected memory, but the use of colour, most notably red, captures her various overwhelming senses of rage, ecstasy and guilt.
Ramsay pared down the novel to its core constituents and sacrificed absolute fidelity to the source in order to execute a piece which is both faithful to the tone and thematic resonances of Shriver’s book, yet is also its own individual treatise on the ideas posed. It is this willingness to discard the tropes, distinctiveness and even the merits of a novel that so often paves the way for a successful film adaptation which earns its own identity as a work of art transcending the original material. Other great examples of this liberty to disregard are Spielberg’s “Jaws,” Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Coppola’s “The Godfather,” and indeed in the former and latter of these cases the author of the novel was also involved in the writing of the screenplay: proof if any were needed that the novelists themselves acknowledge the need to build distance between the work and its screen adaptation. In the case of “Jaws,” the bare minimum of plot and character development is transferred from Benchley’s doorstop book to allow Spielberg to craft a superlative suspense thriller, an entertainment of true cinematic construction and execution which also boasts three-dimensional, engaging characters. Kubrick and Diane Johnson similarly sacrificed the weighty Freudian psychoanalysis of King’s novel of “The Shining” to eradicate any possible excuse or explanation for Jack Torrance’s psychotic descent, and ground the visual and atmospheric horror of the film in the truly supernatural as opposed to the debatably psychosomatic. With “The Godfather,” a non-linear, wide-ranging and sub-plot laden narrative is given linearity and with it the progression of classical tragedy; and a pulpy exploitation tone is sacrificed in favour of a heightened immigrant poetry and the sepia-inflected grandeur of fine art: the result is not a gangster thriller so much as a cross between Shakespeare and Rembrandt.
Yet almost exclusively, the greatest cinematic adaptations of novels, including those films which in many cases rightfully garner the accolade of surpassing the quality of the original book, are based upon recent works, or pieces seen as unspectacular literary excursions in the first place: ripe for improvement. If such circumstances exist it is much simpler, and less problematic, to cut ties with the source material and follow a new path, but in the case of pre-twentieth century literary classics, aged and revered and endlessly debated in academia, this jump become intimidating to filmmakers, and rarely do masterpieces of the canon translate well to film. For the reasons stated above, this is not because the grandiloquent writing of these works cannot be matched by the means at cinema’s disposal, but because filmmakers feel obliged to heed closely to the outstanding elements of the novel instead of pursuing the same dramatic ends via different means.
This is a problem that Andrea Arnold has skillfully avoided in her adaptation of Emily Bronte’s unequivocal classic of the canon, “Wuthering Heights.” The film illustrates my point precisely in portraying on screen all the raw romance, grim beauty and cruel tragedy of the novel whilst dramatically departing from it. The principal departure is the transposing of Heathcliff from being a supposed gypsy to an overt North African ex-slave, taken in as a Christian act of kindness when Cathy’s father finds the child wandering the nighttime docks of Liverpool: his otherness, wildness, and the contempt her elicits from the Lintons and the Earnshaws more justified through this decision, albeit in a way which condemns the supporting characters as uniformly racist. The tremendously strong imagery of the North Yorkshire Moors evoked by Emily Bronte’s heavy use of pathetic fallacy in her prose is put on screen in mesmerizing fashion by Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan. The landscape is as ghostly and enigmatically ethereal as in Bronte, yet on screen it’s more vividly realistic: at times boasting gorgeous sun-drenched colour, at others desaturated and misty, framed in 4:3 to avoid the superficial spectacle of widescreen in favour of something more gritty and earthy. The film’s drama is as grounded in earth as Bronte’s novel, the drama as inherently linked in a heavily symbiotic manner with the land as in the book: unlike most adaptations, the Moors are not just a setting but a fully realised character in the film. Cathy and Heathcliff as children traipse across the land and into each other’s immortal souls, mud plays witness to their suppressed infantile lust and the rage Heathcliff experiences when faced with racial hate, and a branch taps against the nursery and bedroom window with equal, mocking indifference when the two doomed souls lie there as children, and when as a broken-hearted adult Heathcliff hurls himself like a wounded animal against the clay walls.
This in turn hints at the major difference between the film and the novel, and why both are equally effective in portraying a paradoxically moving and disturbing, eerie story: Arnold’s near-sacrifice of language. Bronte’s prose is tightly controlled, dense and evocative: a statement of intent that a woman can write with the passion, conviction and mastery of a male, and her language is heightened to replicate her characters’ soaring, uncontrollable emotions. Arnold’s film contains comparatively little dialogue, supplanting it with gesture and words with images. We gain as much from a page of Bronte’s prose as we do from Cathy licking the wounds on Heathcliff’s back inflicted by her brother’s whip, or from Heathcliff mounting her corpse in an erotically charged piece of necrophilia by candlelight, or from hurling a spoonful of gravy in young Edgar Linton’s face, therefore exposing his skin as in truth being as metaphorically dark as a black Heathcliff’s is literally dark. However, rather than merely supplanting language with physicality, allowing her characters to be viewed in various states of physical abandon (fucking in a muddy field, lustfully biting lips), Arnold also channels the raw emotional states of the story’s main players by having them aurally savage the language of refinement: a bold statement of defiance against the classical construction of Bronte’s prose. The film is foul-mouthed: Heathcliff is repeatedly called a “nigger” by Cathy’s brother Hindley, Heathcliff himself rarely speaks as a young man whilst not enraged, commanding those around him to “fuck off,” and the adult Linton by the simple politeness and refinement of his diction is made to look a convincingly ridiculous fop. In a world of such emotional and psychological intensity, the characters quite believably are mostly unable to express themselves effectively on a linguistic level, and the brutal coarseness of the film’s dialogue renders the moments of ornate, poetic speech even more powerful, such as when Cathy turns to Linton and tells him that through his veins runs ice.
The success and impact of Arnold’s adaptation of an apparently untouchable literary masterpiece derives entirely upon her freedom in re-interpreting and at times ripping up the letter of Bronte’s original. It is similar in this way to Kubrick’s other masterclass of adaptation, “A Clockwork Orange.” Taking a heavily colloquial first-person novel, in which Alex’s Nadsat narrative infused with Russian and Cockney Rhyming slang transports us effortlessly into a nightmarish vision of his world seen purely through his eyes, Kubrick alternates the aesthetic of his film to reflect Alex’s inner state beyond Malcolm McDowell’s engrossing narrative. The first half of the film is imaginative and gaudy, warped in colour and crude art direction in a way that reflects Alex’s ecstatic, probably drug-fuelled nighttime rampages, yet the world becomes a gray and murky one of concrete and cold stones when a deprogrammed Alex is rereleased into society. No filmmaker is likely to match David Lean’s unsurpassable translation of the tone, spirit and character of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” to film (the piece remains the single greatest adaptation of a literary classic in cinema history), but as attempts go Arnold’s take on Bronte isn’t bad. Not bad at all.