So if you hated Emily Bronte's novel, you will hate Andrea Arnold's movie.
Ms. Arnold makes a series of very interesting choices in her adaptation, but she also makes one very common one--she limits the action to the first part of the book, the story of Catherine and Heathcliff. She was quoted in a New York Times article as regretting this decision but found she could not include the rest of the book "time-wise." At just over two hours in length, Ms. Arnold's movie takes its time, too, much to the movies advantage in my view.
Ms. Arnold makes two very interesting choices regarding Heathcliff. First she casts black actors in the part, which brings Heathcliff's status as 'other' into the forground for the modern viewer. Ms. Bronte described Heathcliff as a dark gypsy which would have been enough for her 19th century audience. By making Heathcliff's status as other visual, Ms. Arnold adds a layer of meaning to her version of Wuthering Heights that is absent in the 15 other film and television adaptations. In one scene, a young Heathcliff has been locked in an old shed as punishment for taking Catherine out on the moors when he should have been working. We see him, covered in dirt, bloodied from the beating he has recieved, standing in the only ray of light that penetrates the wooden shed he is locked in, just his face lit, which cannot help but evoke images of slaves in the hold of ships.
The second, perhaps more effective, choice Ms. Arnold makes regarding Heathcliff is to make him the star of the movie. This Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff's story. The movie begins not with arrival of Mr. Lockwood who has rented neighboring Thrushcross Grange but with the arrival of young Heathcliff one dark and rainy night. For much of the movie, the camera slips into Heathcliff's point of view entirely. In one scene young Heathcliff rides horseback sitting behind young Catherine. He begins to notice, then to smell her hair which blows wildly about his face. The camera moves in so that all the viewer sees is Catherine's hair filling the screen. In a later scene, an adult Heathcliff spies on Catherine who has moved into Thrushcross Grange. Standing in the dark outside the windows, he catches only glimpses of her, hears only snippets of the dialogue inside the house. I loved this reversal of the more classic image we recall from the novel, that of Catherine's ghost trying to get back inside Wuthering Heights with a desperate Heathcliff calling to her.
This focus on Heathcliff puts a great distance between the viewer and the rest of the characters. We barely hear any of the dialogue between then, since we are so often in the next room, or outside of the house altogether. This doesn't matter much because the audience already knows the story, but it contrasts greatly with the novel which used the opposite approach. Emily Bronte kept Heathcliff and Catherine at such a great distance that the novel almost never depicted the two of them alone at all. The novel kept the audience inside the house looking out the windows at Heathcliff. In the movie, when Catherine and Heathcliff are together, which is a good portion of the movie, they spend so much time not talking, that the result is practically a silent movie. Ms. Arnold is not afraid to let her visuals set the mood, develop the characters or tell the story. In adapting the novel for the screen, she choose to excise the book's words almost altogether.
All of this may make it sound like the director has taken great liberties with the source material. I'll be honest--while I have read Wuthering Heights three or four times, it has been a while. I can't really say just how faithful Ms. Arnold has been to what actually happened in the book. As far as I can recall the book, Ms. Arnold's movie matches the action quite well. What struck me most about the movie, as far as adaptation goes, was how faithful Ms. Arnold is to Ms. Bronte's overall vision. Wuthering Heights is not a story of love's redemptive power. The love Heathcliff has for Catherine destroys him, destroys her, destroys those around him and their children. Wuthering Heights is about the pain that can cause love and the pain love can cause.
The result is a very brave film.
Read the book. See the movie.