Spring, with its blandly pleasant weather and verdant life sprouting everywhere in a showy riot of color, is the perfect time of year to turn to the bleak novel where Man and Nature try to out-brood each other in prose form, Wuthering Heights.
The novel is a strange work- a tale of thwarted revenge and unhappiness stretching across generations told two steps removed from most characters involved. ‘Strange’ and ‘power’ are the two words used most frequently in early critical reviews; in contrast to the era’s florid novels of innocent women threatened, Wuthering Heights’ stark brutality, the ambiguous morals of its characters and their sad fates made for difficult reading. Of course, the same holds true for the modern age- adaptations of the novel tend to lop off the second half’s complex interweaving of families and relationships in favor of focusing on the first half’s tragic romance. That the novel’s been adapted so many times is bizarre in itself – why take the trouble to squish an unusual story into a more conventional format, not once but over and over again?
It could be the story’s raw power, attested to even by its major critics, but my theory as to why there’s over 12 film versions of Wuthering Heights, not to mention several adaptations to stage, is that the roles of Heathcliff and Cathy are actor catnip. Compare them to the juiciest stage roles for gents and ladies – Hamlet and Lady Macbeth. For the gents, you have free leave to be a melancholy jerk under the guise of SERIOUS SADNESS (dead dad on one side, thwarted love/dead lover on the other), and for the ladies you get to be absolutely un-ladylike (grab for power/raw nature), then play at being a lady but with lots of guilt and anguish, then SUPERNATURAL STUFF (specifically: ghooooooosts)! Scene-chewy goodness all around- plenty of spots to soliloquize about GRAND EMOTIONS and DEEPLY FELT PASSIONS and how those lesser losers just don’t understand ANY OF IT, GOD. Again, Wuthering Heights adaptations focus not on the fallout of actions upon the next generation, but on the doomed romance of Heathcliff and Cathy who doom their own romance instead of an outside force ripping them apart. Or maybe Culture ripped them apart; this isn’t English 102 and that’s not the point.
The point is much like Doctor Who or James Bond, Heathcliff is the rare character whose facets shine through the variety of actors taking on the role. A special award for Hat Trick goes to Timothy Dalton, who played James Bond, Heathcliff and not technically The Doctor but Lord President of all Time Lords so, close enough. The role’s also been played by Laurence Olivier, Ian McShane, Ralph Finnes and….Cliff Richard. Yes, the English Elvis, the Young One himself, wrote and starred in Heathcliff, a musical retelling of Wuthering Heights presented as ‘evidence’ to the audience for YOU to decide what kind of man Heathcliff really is.
Either I’m grossly misremembering video capability from 1997 (the year ‘Titanic’ and ‘The 5th Element’ came out) or the choice to have this staging look like a Lifetime movie from 1986 was intentional.
Did I say Lifetime movie? I mean Sunday morning public access worship hour.
The music is….let’s just put it this way, there’s a lot of synth keyboard. And not the good German kind, I mean the kind backing Christian-themed R&B from the early 90s. Cliff is certainly earnest as Heathcliff, but I kept getting distracted by his facial hair and sartorial choices.
The same goes for the entire production – much like the Broadway staging of ‘Phantom of the Opera’, a lot of the story’s horror and power are lost through the very medium chosen to deliver it- bombastic stage musical. It’s paradoxical that music, which has the ability to reach emotion more readily and directly than other mediums, combined with live theater’s visceral presence and the depth of written word results in a maudlin, campy mess nearly every time. Could it be compromise made between the three mediums cancels out the strengths of each, leaving only weak middle ground to tread? Possibly the ‘language’ of staged musicals could be cheesy, with music demanding high energy to correlate with high emotion, making ridiculous what the theater/written word would get across with quiet strength. The parts could be inherently at odds. Then again I love Judas’ death scene in ‘J.C. Superstar’, so the synthesis can be done well.
This really looks like a fade-in from a Christian music video.
The entire production is available to watch on YouTube, but all you really need to see are the first 20 seconds of this:
I don’t believe the intent was to sound like Don Cornelius, but that is definitely the effect.
Brood on, devil incarnate/misunderstood man.