There are certain works of literature that make the most sense when you understand their characters as adolescents, even if they were written before teenagers were considered a discrete demographic. Jane Austen’s Emma, for instance, clicks into place when you understand Emma as a teenager figuring out her world and growing up, which is why Clueless is such a perfect adaptation. Romeo and Juliet, and the Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli adaptations which emphasize the characters’ youth, passion and immaturity, bring forth these elements in Shakespeare’s work.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights explores the fatal consequences of explosive, all-consuming teen love (among other issues, such as gender, race, and belonging). Catherine Earnshaw, its heroine, dies in childbirth at the age of 18. Her soulmate and enemy Heathcliff flees the neighborhood of Wuthering Heights when he is 15. And the novel ends when the next generation of characters, almost always omitted from adaptations, are themselves in their late teens and early 20s and their predecessors are dead.
That’s why I had a smidgen of hope for the upcoming Lifetime TV movie Wuthering High School, airing Saturday night. Wuthering Heights relocated to a posh California high school? Crashing waves, misbehaving scions of the wealthy? Count me in. Emily Brontë‘s drama is hardly subtle, after all. It seems like hard material to ruin, even for a network known for clumsy, sexist takes on potential-rich stories.
Featuring Cathy Earnshaw as a traumatized young girl who has lost her mother, wandering alone through her family’s mansion and being slut-shamed at school, and Heath as the son of an Earnshaw employee whose entire family has been deported across the border by the US government, the potential for an excellent star-crossed romance is certainly there to be mined. She pouts almost exclusively, he does tricks on his skateboard, they hate authority and the world, and they love each other. It sounds delicious. Unfortunately, the whole production is so wooden that I actually found it boring, which is never something that could never be said about the source material, with its raw emotional power.
Brontë’s novel, despite its nested narratives, doesn’t have a succession of intricate plot points. It’s a mood and meaning piece, propelled forward by the strength of a wild and isolated setting that is symbolically rich — as well as by the almost unbearably intense love and hatred its characters experience. In this spirit, Wuthering High School offers moments of anarchic joy, such as when Heath and Cathy tear up the books in their overbearing health class and lead their schoolmates in a rampage, then run away and jump together into the ocean. Yet I kept thinking, I hope these are just abstinence-only sex-ed textbooks and not, you know, book books, because that would be horrible. Surely, fans of teenage melodrama will enjoy the drugs, the mean-girl scenes in the school bathroom, the parties, the loud montages with moody pop music. Paloma Kwiatkowski as Cathy projects unceasingly stylized, blank, Lana Del Rey-style rage, while Andrew Jacobs nails the brooding stares of Heath.
This should be enough, but it’s not. For all Wuthering Heights‘ sweeping qualities, it has a good deal of subtlety: the different layers of power — class, race, gender, social charm, the acquisition of money — constantly switch back and forth, and our sympathies with them. This is not a feat the Lifetime film replicates. The nadir, for me, comes when Heath takes over the Earnshaw’s home. Arriving there, Cathy and her friends find it has been taken over by people of color, presumably Mexicans, gorgeous women in bikinis, tough-looking skater guys, loud music. “Get me out of this place!” cries Cathy. Associating Heathcliff’s angry, vengeful heel turn with his ethnicity is something that even the sheltered Emily Brontë didn’t explicitly do with her character in the 19th century. It’s gross, and undercuts the campy potential of the whole film.
In fact, the reason Heathcliff is a one of the most divisive and greatest literary characters (and sexiest literary villains) of all time is because our sympathy for him and disgust for his actions vie with each other throughout the story. Most of the people whom he takes revenge on seemingly deserve it, having once scorned him as an outsider. We see how poorly he’s treated by the Earnshaw children: first Hindley bullies him, and then Cathy rejects him for the proper but dull and conventional Edgar Linton, leaving him out in the cold (literally).
But as Heathcliff’s revenge becomes more successful, the pain he inflicts makes us hate him, or at least clench our teeth and beg him to stop. It’s complicated and sad, and would actually make a great updated teen movie. This isn’t that movie. My favorite moment is towards the end, when Cathy confesses to Edgar Linton that she loves Healthcliff more than him: “Friendzoned. That’s what I get for being nice,” he sneers. Edgar as a mansplaning Nice Guy (TM) is perfect, and gets to the heart of Brontë’s vision, in which the socially acceptable Edgar is just as much of a dictator in his way as the snarling Heathcliff. If the movie were smarter, this would have been more than a throwaway moment.