What qualities make a successful adaptation of a classic novel for you? Are you a purist who dislikes any deviation from the sacred text? Or will you tolerate variations on the plot if the innate nature of the novel is not harmed?
Stories of episodic nature with easily classifiable characters seem to do well as screenplays--the work of Charles Dickens comes to mind. Wuthering Heights on the other hand is a story without category, defying conventional narrative structure, acted out by characters of ambiguous motivations. A variation of some sort seems almost necessary to provide the audience with a clear telling of this complex novel. I was therefore curious to see how the new Masterpiece Theater adaptation would play out.
Part I begins at a seemingly random scene: young Linton Heathcliff's arrival at Wuthering Heights. After a few minutes, however, it starts to make sense. Like many Wuthering Heights adaptations, the double narration of the book has been stripped.
It is therefore unnecessary to introduce Mr Lockwood or Nelly Dean before we get to Linton's return and the avalanche of misfortunes that the second generation experiences. This adaptation gives us a small taste of what is going on in present day--what Heathcliff and Edgar Linton have become and the legacy they are pushing onto their children--before it takes us back to the story of the first generation.
Heathcliff and Catherine, played by Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley, are truly enjoyable to watch and work well together on screen. Tom Hardy especially proves himself worthy of playing that devil-man creation. He is brutal, conniving, and haunted; he plays both degraded stable boy and wealthy gentleman with ease.
Another great performance is Burn Gorman as Hindley. Masterpiece Theatre regulars will remember him as Guppy in Bleak House.
Hindley's character is very true to the book as the ruthless and then utterly destroyed older brother.
Heathcliff and Hindley make clearer something that I found lacking in the other characters of this adaptation. While superbly acted, they seemed like diluted versions of their fiery book counterparts. To truly enjoy Emily Brontë's masterpiece, one has to take a queer pleasure in reading about people destroying themselves and those around them. I believe there isn't one character in the book that escapes from doing something despicable. Saintly Nelly Dean even has her moments. Not here.
Catherine is sympathetic and not innately self-destructive. It seems like her fate is sealed by obsessive devotion rather than vengeful conceit. Young Linton Heathcliff shows none of his detestable selfishness of the novel. Young Cathy makes one rude remark to Hareton then then immediately repents. And Joseph, the character I had grown to love in the book as a the black-humor comic relief, says a mere two rude and unintelligible lines.
I am sure there are viewers of this version for whom Heathcliff and Hindley provide quite enough conflict and anguish for one sitting. Perhaps some will enjoy the slight reprieve from Emily Brontë's brutish rendering of chaos on the moors. Admittedly, toning down the violence and stepping up the sex does have an appeal. The romance is heightened, making the doomed love of Catherine and Heathcliff more understandable to the modern audience, especially for those not familiar with the book.
So if you aren't a purist when it comes to adaptations and can overlook that some relationships are changed from the original, that some characters are actually innately good, and--maybe the strangest of all--that Nelly Dean never ages despite the passage of 30 years, then you'll surely enjoy this unique and charming retelling of Wuthering Heights.