G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.
“His difference is key,” Arnold says. “And I wonder whether his difference is Emily [Bronte] expressing her own difference. She was so isolated in her own way, and I think she was exploring that through Heathcliff. I think her writing is about her. I think she felt singular and different and slightly isolated.” For a character where difference is so key thematically, and who is described physically in the book as being athletic, with black hair, thick, low brows, “dark-skinned”, “dark almost as if [he] came from the devil,” with “eyes full of black fire”, it’s remarkable that Arnold is the first director to cast an actor who begins to approach this.
“It’s been a very big issue,” she says, “but for me, it was quite clear in the book that he was dark skinned. He gets called a little Lascar, which would have been an Indian seaman, and Nelly says, ‘Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen.’ I think it’s very clear that he wasn’t white. I think his difference was certainly very important in my story and very important in the book.”
I suppose it is predictable of a blogger in this sphere to be critical of this choice. But I’m not so much critical of the choice just because it is so stereotypical for artists to reap praise for offering interpretations that challenge classic works – or, even, interpretations of interpretations of classic works – in this particular direction. Only the most distorted reading of the book would suggest that Heathcliff was of African descent.
Even then, one could make the case that Adams’ artistic license allows for her to tweak the character in this way. Except, in this same interview, she made quite a big deal about the realism of her particular movie. So she revokes her own license to get too flippant with the original work:
Casting wasn’t the only area where Arnold demanded a greater level of accuracy than we’ve seen in screen adaptations thus far. Her female cast were forbidden the razors whose use rose throughout the 20th century to become a given in women’s grooming routines. “I love the idea that women would have been hairy and would have had bushy eyebrows and hairy legs and hairy armpits.”
Being so realistic about British womens’ hirsuteness would suggest that Arnold would have been more precise about the ethnic background of the most important character in the book. If casting a typical white Heathcliff was not realistic, casting a black Heathcliff does not make it any more accurate. It’s still inaccurate, but in the opposite direction.
In another interview, Arnold explains:
Of course, I wasn’t trying to do a literal adaption; I was trying to capture the essence of something. Heathcliff might have been a Romani Gypsy. They are originally from Asia, and they would have been very, very dark-skinned. If I was being really faithful, maybe I would have gone down that route. But what really matters is that he’s different. I wanted to explore his difference and how that makes him an outsider and how that brings about the brutality that he experienced. I felt that it was important I express the difference visually.
Surely there are plenty of brown-skinned actors looking for work, but she still chose to use a black actor. Perhaps at that point it became a matter of which non-white actor, which “other” actor, was most talented. Or perhaps she had in mind an actor that matched the reel playing in her head:
I had an image of Heathcliff, like an animal, climbing the moor. From a distance, it looked like he was an animal, but up close you see he’s carrying rabbits on his back. That was my image, and whenever I lost my way that was the image I kept coming back to. That’s the whole reason I was doing it. It’s a silly to thing to do, but it was a sincere attempt to try to do something that I really cared about.
A British film reviewer who did not enjoy the work pointed out a couple of other flaws in both the dialogue and in the director’s poor deconstruction:
Not content with casting Heathcliff as mixed race, a creative misreading of the novel, Arnold has said she could have made Heathcliff a woman, too – for she believes that “Emily was Heathcliff. I think we all might be Heathcliff.” But first we need to believe in the emotions and motives of the characters and, in the latter part of this film, we can’t. The poor dialogue doesn’t help, some clumsily updated, as when Hindley says of Heathcliff, “He’s not my brother, he’s a n****r”, and Heathcliff tells the Linton family, “F**k you all, c**ts”.