Wuthering Heights: Two views of the new Heathcliff


The new screen adaptation of Emily Bronte's classic Wuthering Heights hit the cinema on Friday. Most people were pleasantly surprised to see anti-hero Heathcliff played by a Black actor and it has given some hope that more directors could take the somewhat bold move such as director Andrea Arnold to use Black or minority ethnic actors in lead roles and not typecasting them due to stereotypes or perceptions. But not everyone shares this view.

Here, OBV intern Ijeoma Mbubaegbu and contributor Rakshita Patel give their views on the new Wuthering Heights movie and the "Black" Heathcliff. Let us know what you think and whether you agree or disagree with Rakshita and Ijeoma.

Rakshita Patel: The new Wuthering Heights made me understand what all the fuss is about

The new version of Wuthering Height has been billed as director Andrea Arnold's radical and beautifully filmed adaptation of this classic tale of obsessive love and it was quite clear from the promotional material, the difference between this and other versions of Wuthering Heights, is that they have made Heathcliff Black.

I read the Wuthering Heights novel when I was a lot younger and found it very complex and totally impenetrable. I have never really "got" it or understood why so many people are so passionate about the novel and feel so strongly about it. This film changed all that.

Having a Black Heathcliff obviously heightened Heathcliff's alieness and his otherness, raising it to a new level. Hindley's cruel and brutal treatment towards him reminded me of the treatment meted out to Shylock and Caliban (also both aliens and others). Given what was going on in the slave trade at the time, Heathcliff's treatment really spoke to me powerfully and resonated with me in a way it had not done previously.

Two actors play Heathcliff and two actors play Cathy - one set of actors play them as young adults and the other set of actors as grown-up adults. For the majority of the film, Heathcliff and Cathy are young adults, which I think is true to the book, and both young actors were outstanding. What I would say about both sets of actors is that they really conveyed the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy, their deep and undying love for each other, and the searing pain, grief and torment their love for each other brought them.

There were many other things that I loved about this version. The isolation and remoteness of living out on the moors was powerfully conveyed. The landscape was definitely a character in its own right; in particular I loved the endless torrents of torrential rain. The cinematography was beautiful and truly breathtaking; I loved the close-ups on points of detail. And I loved the juxtaposition between the past and the present at key moments, conveying exactly how the human mind, and specifically memory, works.

In a nutshell, this film blew me away. For the first time I "got" Wuthering Heights and understood what the fuss was all about. It is a master class in how you can take a well-worn classic that has had countless adaptations, add in a new and unusual twist, and yet still remain true to the heart, spirit and the soul of the novel and the source material (Sherlock anyone?!). Highly recommended, even in preference to the Tom Hardy version!

Ijeoma Mbubaegbu: Having a Black Heathcliff is not a radical move

James Howson, an unknown Black actor is the Romantic hero Heathcliff in the new adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In the novel, Bronte describes Heathcliff as being a character with dark features and her description of this sets the mood for the story. The story itself is full of darkness and misery and gloomy pathetic fallacy to emphasise the difficulties that Heathcliff and Catherine experience because their clashing status within society means that the lovers are star-crossed and social conditioning has doomed their passion for each other. The writers of the screenplay have taken the darkness of the novel to a new extreme by matching the skin colour of the lead character to the black atmosphere. It is extreme pathetic fallacy and personification.

The Marxist would say that Heathcliff has experienced struggles because he begins life as a poor gypsy. Perhaps the directors of the new adaptation of Wuthering Heights felt that it was appropriate to cast Heathcliff as a Black man because he comes from a humble background. As a result the screenplay of the new adaptation is exploring the prejudice that all Black men are poor and limited in society because they have unequal social status.

The writers of the screenplay are achieving nothing new. Creative expression however might be achieved if the writers of the screenplay of an adaptation of a classic such as Pride and Prejudice would reserve the role of a rich man with handsome features as with the character of Mr. Darcy might be reserved for a Black man. The Black man as Mr. Darcy would be a greater risk. Even the Bollywood version Bride and Prejudice of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice played it safe by casting the other lead characters as Asian whilst Mr. Darcy was a rich and handsome white man. It is strange for the Black man to act the character of romantic lead if the fictional character has began life as a rich man and stayed a rich man, these classic English gentlemen roles are reserved for white men. The message behind the new adaptation is that it is alright for a Black actor to play the role of the romantic lead as long as he comes from the humble background of a pauper.

The new film is superficial as with the character of Catharine. She chooses to marry the rich man so that she can keep her ranking in social status despite her love for Heathcliff. The character of Heathcliff in Catharine’s opinion is unworthy of the love of a rich female and in this adaptation the Black man is unworthy of Catharine’s love. The filmmakers are highlighting the superficiality of society in the past while exploring the prejudice that Black men have lower social ranking. Consequently in many professions, Black men have the lowest ranking roles and in movie making Black actors are reserved for the underprivileged character and the villain.

In the screenplay however, the Black man does become rich but remains unhappy because he is tormented by his love for Catherine that can never be climaxed. So although the Black man finds wealth he does not find happiness. The movie as with novel begins in darkness and ends in darkness and the Black man, James Howson, personifies this.

Archived Comments

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Why dig so deep?

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie having read it at school. I like Rakshita Patel's take on the casting of a black actor. It's the only reason I want to see the movie. It's been done so many times this is new and different.

I'm hoping we'll see more important roles handed out to black actors because they are good actors not because the script calls for a certain type.

Ijeoma needs to lighten up a bit. Just saying.