Show Hide image

Wuthering Heights

Some novels lend themselves to the small screen. This isn’t one of them

Some books lend themselves wonderfully well to adaptation, and a few - very few - are even improved by the experience (John Galsworthy's incredibly boring Forsyte Saga, for instance; I have just finished watching a repeat of the 2002 adaptation on ITV3, an experience that has been heavenly in every way save for Irene's - or Gina McKee's - mysterious and immutable County Durham accent). Wuthering Heights, however, is not one of them.

I have never seen a successful film or television version of Emily Brontë's only novel, and I do not expect that I ever will. Its complex structure, its poetry, strangeness and extreme violence work only on the page. Lose them, as any screenwriter inevitably will, and all you are left with is a bewildering, semi-sadomasochistic relationship and a few moody shots of the Yorkshire moors. Where's the shock and awe in that?

Peter Bowker is a writer whose finest work is all his own (Blackpool, Occupation). When he starts messing with real people (Desperate Romantics),or someone else's stuff (A Christmas Carol), things go a bit wrong. His screenplay for Wuthering Heights (30 and 31 August, 9pm) took huge liberties with the novel, and though I do not object to this in principle, refusing to be a slave to your Penguin Classic is a problem when you are dealing with a book as singular as Wuthering Heights.

I am not going to list every change here. I am not some possessive Brontë nerd, and this is supposed to be a TV review, not lit crit. Suffice to say that his "improvements" ranged from excising the novel's most troubling violence (I guess that puppy killing, one of Heathcliff's - and Hareton's - more casual crimes, would not have gone down a bundle with a commissioning editor in search of bank holiday treats) to smoothing out its elaborate time shifts (Nelly Dean, played by Sarah Lancashire, was here a minor character rather than the story's narrator).

Result? Wuthering Heights-lite: less absorbingly queer than the real deal, and yet, paradoxically, infinitely more perplexing. You need to know an awful lot about Catherine and Heathcliff - not least that they shared a bedroom until they were 13 - even to half grasp why their wolfish, incestuous passion persists. Bowker, in his effort to move the action politely on, told us only that they were both a little wild.

Oh, well. I am glad I watched it all the same; though it is certainly getting ever more difficult to ignore the way Andrew Lincoln, who played Edgar Linton, can do only one accent (Mancunian-ish), and that his performances involve much wiggling of his eyebrows and very little else. If casting failed with him - as it possibly did with Lancashire - it succeeded spectacularly with both Burn Gorman as Hindley and Tom Hardy as Heathcliff.

Gorman, so quirky and affecting as Mr Guppy in the BBC's peerless adaptation of Bleak House, is a brilliant actor. His Hindley, a famous brute and the engine that powers the more wanton spite of his adoptive brother, Heathcliff, was mesmerisingly nasty. As for Hardy, he was the best Heathcliff I have seen. I must admit, however, that during his first few moments on screen, I was worried that he was playing him as Marco-Pierre White in riding boots, gangster-ish and quixotic. Heathcliff is no mere gangster, but a devil. As Nelly says of him in the novel, "I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species.

"There is something about Hardy's mouth - perhaps it is the unsettling contrast between his soft, pillowy lips and the teeth that they conceal, which look like mossy, tumbledown gravestones - that has you hanging on his every word, menace mingling with charm like the scent of cat's piss on roses. Thanks to him, little was required of Charlotte Riley's Catherine, beautiful and spirited though she was. I could not properly fathom her relationship with this particular Heathcliff, and I knew, both as a reader and as a viewer, that important details were being withheld. But, on the other hand, I sure as hell did not want their love to end.

It is quite impossible to tear your eyes from Hardy, and when the titles rolled, I felt his loss.

Pick of the Week

Harper's Island
Starts 6 September, 9pm, BBC3
And then there were none - with good-looking teenagers.

The Last Days of Lehman Brothers
9 September, 9pm, BBC2
Drama about the bank collapse that precipitated the financial crisis.

The Love of Money
10 September, 9pm, BBC2
Documentary about the ill-fated Lehman Brothers.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives