From Samuel Goldwyn to Andrea Arnold: the transformation of Heathcliff’s filmic identity


Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff is ‘a Lascar’ and a ‘dark-skinned gipsy in aspect’. With the arrival of Heathcliff, the idea associated with him is that of otherness. His physical attributes and demeanor are qualities expressed at the wild edge of romanticism and ‘nature’. They accord with the stereotypes of the racial other: specifically blacks and gypsies. And the power of blackness is associated with diabolicism: the power to disrupt social order, or property relations, hierarchy, sexual control and relationship proprieties. The heath, the wilderness, always stands at the age of society, civilization, decency, control, propriety, order.

Whatever might be Heathcliff’s origins, he is definitely not ‘white enough’ to gain assimilation in the white genteel household. He always lurks on the boundaries, neither an insider nor an outsider, a ‘dark’ lurking misfit. During the course of the narrative, it is interesting how this symbolic/physical darkness upsets the social order and sanctity, which is problematical on the ethno-racial grounds. Heathcliff’s desire for revenge is instigated from the  rejection he gets from everyone. This revenge is initiated by the disturbing of the power of balance in terms of property ownership, once Heathcliff makes a re-entry in the garb of an English gentleman. His ‘sinister otherness’ makes inroads and wreaks havoc by first taking the ownership of Wuthering Heights and then the Thrushcross Grange. It is a persisting atmosphere of sadness and gloom with the invasion of this ‘unhealthy darkness’. The initial commodification of the ‘gypsy other’ backfires when the unacknowledged outsider makes  assertive attempts to take  ownership of the property, thus staying true to his ‘essentialized, demonic darkness’;  order getting restored only with the the erasure of this outsider and the property being restored to the rightful owner, i.e. Hareton Earnshaw.

Wuthering Heights has been subject to numerous screen adaptations. Apart from the uncertain artistic merit of these popular productions, what is still more surprising is how the character of Heathcliff has fared today. Heathcliff has always been played by Caucasian actors such as Laurence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Hardy, Timothy Dalton. It is surprising why his racial ambivalence was never brought to the fore by getting an actor of a different racial background to play Heathcliff. Even if the textual drama is not intended to be a specific indictment of racial injustice, this metaphorical ‘otherness’ cannot be suitably and powerfully underlined without exploring the racially charged dimension of the character of Heathcliff.

The 1939 Samuel Goldwyn production of Wuthering Heights casts the famed Shakespearean actor Lawrence Olivier in the role of Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine. Due to the major role that the casting of Olivier here plays, it becomes an anti-thesis to the character of Heathcliff and waters down the elemental passions that are the core of the demented heart of Bronte’s work. It is significant here that for a popular, commercial genre of cinema, popular attitudes and expectations play their part. In the context of the historical time of the movie’s production, nothing runs contrary to the expectation that they would churn out a conformist, non-subversive, romantically and commercially acclimatized version of Heathcliff, and Bronte’s novel. Also, the time in the United States was the beginning of the civil rights movement and of a pervasive segregation of the races and a consequent deep revulsion for black man-white woman relationship. So it does follow why the portrayal of Heathcliff by anyone but a Caucasian would be perceived as a ‘racial aberration’ and hence would be intolerable.

Darkness has several connotations. With the unwillingness and incapacity to tackle the racial connotation, what seems to have been operated upon, in the 1939 production, is the metaphorical connotation of this darkness. It is an amorphous expression of this moral tendency, almost a satanic quality, something akin to nineteenth-century Byron-Satanic heroes like Don Juan or Childe Harold. Also, there was in the nineteenth a fascination with a ‘demonic’ darkness which is actually post-theological. This does not translate into racial difference which has to be kept understated, suppressed and non-provocative. A Byronic-Satanic understanding of Heathcliff is a romanticist thing, and a commercial filmography of Wuthering Heights could possibly go that far but not race transgress.

In the Samuel Goldwyn’s production, Lawrence Olivier both plays and ‘contains’ the ‘difference’. There are numerous references in the movie to Heathcliff’s otherness: ‘gypsy beggar’, ‘as dark as he came from the devil’, ‘a surly dressed up beggar, a lout, a boor’. Isabella tells Heathcliff, ‘You are not black and horrible as they think of you. But full of pain.’ It is surprising why this oft-mentioned ‘blackness’ is so apparent to the other characters in the movie while it isn’t so to the viewer. Heathcliff is too polished, elegant and somewhat eloquent even as a child. Olivier has such a romanticist understanding of the character which is not really threatening at all, not subversive. It renders an insipid, innocuous tone to the story by making it ‘acceptable’. One cannot have an innocuous, harmless Wuthering Heights, a tale in which race, class, gender, morality, sexuality, interior, exterior, nature/civility, everything and each contradiction is pushed to a ‘dangerous’ limit.

The 1939 adaptation doesn’t really focus on the experiences of Heathcliff as an outsider, someone subjected to unimaginable oppression by his master Hindley which culminated in such psychic distortion, hatred, and revenge. The story rather fits in a very romanticist and conventional pattern of love, separation, and angst. ‘Isn’t she beautiful? That’s the kind of dress I want to wear. And you will have red velvet coat and silver buckles on your shoes. O Heathcliff will we, will we ever?’ It is a traditionalist vision of love and its goals have been foreseen: marriage, settlement, happiness.  Catherine’s love for Heathcliff seems to be totally driven by  dreams of matrimonial fulfillment. A nice house and husband thus characterize a ‘lack’ in Cathy’s life which Heathcliff is unable to fulfill and thus she is driven towards Linton. The schism in Catherine, which makes her capable of unimaginable rebellion and sexualism, and romantic ‘freedom’, while at the same time capable of being co-opted into ‘acceptable’ feminine and class expectations, has been underplayed in this adaptation. This is what weakens the impassioned wildness that invests the affinity between her and the wild Heathcliff. Consequently, Heathcliff’s ‘otherness’ becomes secondary and less important. It is rather Catherine’s shift towards permanent conformity, from a weak and slightly wayward form of non-conformity, that spins the tragedy of the story. Her developing possible union with Heathcliff seems to mimic, rather than provide a fundamental alternative to the Linton-Cathy marriage. Now that he is a genteel, acceptable, mainstream all-white British gentleman of the Victorian era, they could have had a ‘happily ever after’ marriage. This would be the ideal happy ending for them! The problem is that it does not materialize: and not that (as the truth is) it could never materialize in that form.

Also, there is no effective presentation of the multiple exclusions and victimization Heathcliff is subjected to. It is not an attempt to understand why Heathcliff becomes what he becomes: a rough, crude, cruel, boorish man who destroys a ‘good’ respectable marriage, couple and woman. With the question of racial otherness erased, it is possible that the understanding of the audience, of class-based oppression and resentment of Heathcliff has been considered as subliminal, and hence not deserving of any hard-hitting cinematic depiction.

Many films and TV adaptations have followed the Samuel Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, with the role of Heathcliff invariably played by a Caucasian actor. Finally, though, in 2011 Andrea Arnold, a British director came with her version of the story which has James Howson, an actor of African-Caribbean descent playing the part of Heathcliff. It radically implies how ‘racial/ethnic outsiderness’ is the broad issue. The blackness of the actor essentially intensifies the association. In a tale in which nothing is moderate, and all passions are elemental like the force of nature, Arnold’s version is a validation of it with her sparse ‘naturalistic’ rendition.

The movie opens with the scene in which Earnshaw gets Heathcliff (played by Solomon Glave) to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff snarls at the pet dog, paralleling his own ascribed beastly otherness with it. He speaks gibberish, and even Catherine (first played by Shannon Breer and then by Kaya Scoledario) spits on him. ‘It was the only Christian thing to do’ – that is how Earnshaw explains Heathcliff’s incorporation into the family. He seems to be on a Christian mission of controlling, cleansing and moralizing this unfamiliar ‘heathen’.

This sentiment is underscored in the following scene in which Heathcliff undergoes Christian rituals – ‘For I will take you from among the heathen. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Heathcliff, do you reject Satan?’ In what seems to be a process of cleansing of a filthy heathen ‘other’, of exorcism of the possessed stranger, misfit; Heathcliff physically breaks free and runs away. Cathy runs away with him. Solidarity is established between the wild outcasts, as they run away into the mist, those two children of nature and wilderness.

Arnold’s version stays true to the very different view of childhood in Wuthering Heights than in Dickens for example – far darker and more militant and ‘uncontrollable’. The young Cathy’s gender outsiderness (at least until her incorporation) complements Heathcliff’s racial, or familial-illegitimate, or class outsiderness. It is her uncontrollable nature that makes it possible for her to rake through the moors with Heathcliff, denying the feminine bounds of containment and cleanliness. It is very important and the basis of their ‘soul solidarity’ right from childhood. It predates sexual fascination.

What makes Arnold’s Wuthering Heights a compelling tale is how she places racism into perspective: the oppression, the societal prejudices, the deep betrayals, the multiple exclusions, the expropriations racism involves. ‘We should hang you now before you get any older’ – this is what the Lintons consider of the ‘the little lascar, the stowaway’ Earnshaw brought from the streets of Liverpool. His attempts at acceptance are brutally mocked at. ‘Look at him. He is all dressed up like a circus monkey’ says Edgar Linton when Heathcliff cleans up for the family lunch. Heathcliff is not one of them, and no amount of cleaning and washing and scrubbing of the grim and dirt can make him one them. He is, in several frames shown, looking through the window, peeping in with the voyeuristic gaze of an outsider who has been driven out from the internal inviolability of the white genteel family.

The treatment of Heathcliff by Hindley has been shown as horrendous. ‘He is not my brother, he is a nigger’ – the degradation of Heathcliff by Hindley is demonstrated as a brutal response to his ethnicity in Arnold’s adaptation. ‘Your choice nigger. Work or leave. Move in with the animals you belong’ – Hindley establishes the master-slave hierarchy based on demotion to a sub-human species status. Heathcliff is banished to the farm. The boundaries have sternly been laid down. He is brutally beaten up by Hindley and Joseph when he leaves work and runs off with Cathy to the moors – ‘Even the animals work around here’. One crucial thing that emerges is that violence isn’t exclusively centered inside the ‘black’ or ‘alien’ Heathcliff – the vampire, gargoyle, gipsy, et al. On the contrary, it is everywhere. It enters him precisely from the respectable, white, propertied, genteel world: Hindley’s animality, his cruelty, his deterioration, his alcoholism and dissipation, his decadence and wasteful self-destruction. Evil and violence begin in the very white, bloodline; the respectable son and heir of Earnshaw. And that is something that surfaces when Arnold complicates the matter of class oppression with race. And it actually breaks up the divides: the moral divisions and binaries around class and race. It exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian morality. Hindley is cruel and sadistic to anyone he can establish his power over with humiliation and cruelty: anyone helpless. And then he and his wife Frances are showering cloying sentimental effusions of love upon each other. It is a great expose of another double standard in the Victorian age: the polite and lovey-dovey sentimental is not only absurd and infuriating; it totally mismatches the brutality and inner heartlessness of Hindley and Frances. They are amused by the destruction, punishment and cruelty they are now free to dispense.

What Arnold has notably not missed out in her adaptation is the positioning of racial oppression in Heathcliff’s revenge once he is back to the Heights and how it stimulates his vengeful brutality. The anger and retaliation is not motivated just by the passion he has for Catherine, but also by a more primitive attempt at self-preservation that is intrinsic to his state of otherness and repression. Heathcliff (played by James Howson) is no simple ‘victim’. He is a sufferer of abuse, and he discharges it with interest. That is a ‘satanic hero’, a social revenger. Marital-sexual cruelty is something he suffered first, in his very destiny of exclusion from Cathy. So, this revenge is very specific and particular. He was humiliated, expropriated, sexually demeaned and degraded. Now he’ll do the same to his abuser. The revenge is not specific to the immediate perpetrator of violence and injustice, Hindley.  It is not ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ merely but is visited upon a whole social sphere and its ideologies and so whole generations of the oppressing family/families must be destroyed and rendered impotent. Franz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks confronts us with an interesting transformation phenomenon by which racial inferiority or unacceptable transgressions are rendered tolerable. Fanon argued that the oppressed black racial minorities, controlled by Christian morality, which is also used to tame the ‘wild children’ in Wuthering Heights, need to regain access to a visceral violent capability if they want to break free of their spiritual enslavement and thralldom. Racial self-liberation involves being violent and ‘non-Christian’ towards the oppressor. Violence restores your identity and autonomy. It is the sentiment and procedure of Heathcliff who re-enacts the cruelty he has always known. It is very destructive and also self-destructive.

A critic has called Arnold’s Wuthering Heights as a ‘beautiful rough beast of a movie’. It so aptly conveys the sense of naturalism that is present in Bronte’s novel.  The cinematic language conveys  the ideas of violence, revenge, illicit passion, sexuality and gender transgression, effectively in a visual format ; the radicalism underscored  powerfully.  In fact, the very form of the film is then part of its ideological challenge. There is a microscopic focus of the camera on detail – flora and fauna, moths fluttering, beetles and weed, decay and filth. It is a  naturalistic view of human life similar to the organisms in nature. This provides the framework for a Darwinian study of the effects of environment, the seamy side of life, the degraded, the gutter filth, and social morass dimensions. There are multiple still shots of the tempestuous, drab, harsh landscape. With these multiple still shots, the effect is that of tableaux that indicates a disposition of man and nature. It is not the nineteenth-century Wordsworthian idealization of landscape as pantheistic, lyrical, sweet, pacific, ‘poignant’, and a savior. In Wuthering Heights, nature is wild, tortured, harsh, untamed, dangerous, spooky, and haunted. The impermissible becomes naturalized in such a landscape. The ‘misfit’ man is linked to this ‘untamed’ aspect of nature as opposed to home, family, civilization, morality. The white face-black face/man-woman relationship – juxtaposed with the primeval landscape makes other points – about race, gender, which links the framing of the depiction to European-genteel-rational vs. exotic-barbaric social types: the outsider, the other threatens societal safeties.

The use of hand held camera which, moves and shakes, creates a sense of discontinuity, disorientation, violence, seismic breakdown and destabilization. It is the disruption of racial expectation, which parallels the disruptive tempestuousness of nature. The camerawork style parallels the ‘rupture’ of the expected and the safe. The dialogues have been cut to the minimum with a profusion of cursing. The emphasis is more on the visuals. Hence the ‘color’ issue, i.e. the color transformation (or re-blacking) of Heathcliff becomes sensationally foregrounded. The image of the black man on top of a white woman in the heath/mud moor is highly incendiary; a racial moral shock to the Victorian sensibility and repression of sexuality.The inchoateness of ‘cursing’ (impolite, abusive, violent, vituperative anti-language discourse) as the soundtrack, echoes a challenge to the ‘literary’ sensibility of the nineteenth century in a cinematic format and thus links to Bronte’s general challenge to polite discourse. There is also much direct animality and animal imagery and presences in the film – lots of primitive animal cries and howls, dogs chasing men, dead rabbits, Heathcliff’s own nature paralleling his beasts, Heathcliff and Hareton hanging dogs. In fact, the non-beastly parts of Victorian culture stand demystified, disrobed; they are just as ‘beastly’ or more so. It could be the part of the cultural critique and exposure of the polite-genteel pretenses of Victorian respectability.

The ethno-racial ‘otherness’ in the novel, expressed along multiple racial identity (and moral-religious) axes is intensified, underscored and radicalized into the shocking extreme of having Heathcliff played by an actor of Afro-racial ethnicity: now there can be no escape from a confrontation of the racial problem – a confrontation compelled by attempting this extreme and radical interpretation of the identity question in Wuthering Heights. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a violent, dangerous, seething dark work. If Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a beast of a book, Arnold’s is a beast of a movie!