Monday, January 26, 2009

Peter Bowker talks about Wuthering Heights 2009

Peter Bowker, the screenwriter of the latest Wuthering Heights, has been kindly answering questions from members of the Barnes & Noble Book Club message board. Here's a digest of what has been said there, but bear in mind you can still ask your own questions as he will be answering them until January 30.


Many of his answers will be useful to bloggers and other message boards members who have been wondering similar things. We quote from Peter Bowker's replies only as they are pretty self-explanatory as to the questions they are answering to.

In answer to DLF:
It's an odd one with Heathcliff. I think there is a definite suggestion throughout that Heathcliff has "gyspy" blood and the imagery can even point to a reading which could imply he had African or Carribean blood.
However, I think the gypsy stereotype is more likely. There was certainly a growing fear of the "other" in Victorian England and a number of urban myths about "cuckoos in the nest". Strays or orphans that were brought into the family who then consumed it.
There is also the matter of the exact relelationship between Mr. Earnshaw and Heathcliff. There is a plausible case to be made for Heathcliff being Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate son which does, of course, make him Cathy's half-sister. For the sake of the love affair I abandoned this conjecture fairly early.
I think the most important thing about Heathcliff's outsider status is actually his social class. He is outside the hierachy altogether and that allows him to see clearly where the power truly lies in the society. Therefore he goes away and makes his fortune and of course uses economics to punish both the Earnshaws and the Lintons. I am not saying his sole motivation was class hatred, I think it was actually jealousy and love, but I think his lack of identifiable class certainly contributed to his "outsider" status.
In answer to Connie K.:
Two things determined the opening. A desire to make the younger generation's story count more - and not be read as some kind of tedious bolt-on after Cathy's death - because I think the playing out of Heathcliff's revenge and it's ultimate failure is as fascinating as the Heathcliff/Cathy love story. So I thought by giving it some room at the front we might then buy into those characters more and therefore care about them more at the end. I realise that it makes it quite a tricky watch to begin with (not helped by the similarities of all the names - Linton, Hareton, Hindley, Edgar Linton, Heathcliff, Mr. Earnshaw, Cathy and Catherine) but I hope people make some sense of it.
Also, having abandoned Mr. Lockwood altogether because I think he is a brilliant novelistic device but not a great filmic device (in many ways I see the viewer as Mr. Lockwood, trying to makes sense of these warring families and the monstrous Heathcliff) I thought it was necessary to meet Heathcliff the monster before meeting Heathcliff the damaged child and the rejected man.
There are a hundred ways to start this story but I thought a mystery might be a good way in.
In answer to Everyman:
At first I thought this is going to be such an easy gig, because the language is so wonderful. But then I started writing it out and realised very little of it works as dialogue because it is so heightened and poetic. So I wanted to preserve some of that quality and there are classic lines such as, "I am Heathcliff" which really you cannot lose.
What I did an awful lot was use reported speech and make that into dialogue. Great swathes of the novel are in the form of Nelly reporting on various incidents. I used those a lot.
But characters like Edgar Linton (Andrew Lincoln) spoke so eloquently that it really was often a case of transcribing it.
I would often use dialogue from other scenes and blend them. This seems to work well with big arguments for some reason.
In the end, the time slot over here is very brief and to some extent the structure is determined by the ad breaks. So five short acts times two doesn't give you an awful lot of time. Most of the dialogue has to push the story on, but as I said at the top, there are certain key phrases in Wuthering Heights that cannot be sacrificed.
and:
As I recall he does hear Cathy saying that she intends to marry Edgar. Doesn't he? I thought Cathy told him that Edgar had asked her to marry him and she hadn't said, "No." The thing that puzzled me in the book was that if his motivation was to make his fortune and come back a Gentleman and marry Cathy then why didn't he tell her that. I know men are bad at communicating but that seems a bit extreme! So I thought that his motivation was, at some level, also about punishing Cathy by not contacting her.

I agree. The three year engagement was something of a cop-out. Couldn't find a way to solve the chronology.

I had her falling for Edgar Linton after the dog attack (which is, of course, when she is a child in the book, but as an adult in the film) rather than the night on the Moors because I wanted her to fall in love with Edgar as a caring man who can offer some generosity. When she returns from her first visit to the Grange in the book it seems to me that she is portrayed as this little snob who has been seduced by wealth. I felt it should be more complicated than that. I felt that her marriage to Edgar should make sense emotionally and not just seem like a marriage of convenience. And to be honest, part of the reason we aged the actors early on was so weren't asking the audience to go through the ageing process with three different actors for each role. So probably a pragmatic reason rather than a poetic reason!
and:
I am fascinated by the figure of Joseph in the book. I love his language, I love his fearlessness and I find his bible quoting (and given Emily Bronte was the daughter of the local Parson surely he is based on one of the more enthusiastic members of her father's congregation) both comic and characteristic of a man trying to hang on to some meaning in what is, let's face it, fairly bleak circumstances. And we cast a great actor to play him. But the truth is, his part just got cut and cut and cut, both at script level and in the edit, because he is often commenting on the story rather than pushing it on. This for me, is a great shame, and I think people might just dismiss Joseph as texture but, at one level, he is the harsh Old Testament commentator on events as opposed to Nelly who seems more New Testament and forgiving. So just a matter of time I'm afraid but frustrating nonetheless.

As for the storm scenes - this answer is worse than the last! - we were filming in late Summer and early Autumn and to everybody's immense surprise the weather in Northern England in September was glorious. So there were more storm scenes written. And I agree, the Moor is actually a character in the novel, as is the house of course.
Hope this doesn't sound too evasive!
In answer to Absalom:
Oh, completely with you on this. I think I really had to work to make Catherine in particular sympathetic.
Heathcliff spends a lot of time hitting women and children and Catherine pinches Nelly more than once!
It is a story of two very damaged people trapped in what is a fairly impossible passion for each other. This might sound a rather mundane observation but it is hard to see how Heathcliff and Cathy was going to work out just on the basis of their personalities alone, let alone their personal circumstances. I would argue their relationship was not a "good fit". Their need for the other was also a need to dominate the other. I don't know my Freud well enough to speculate on this but there is something very fixed and unchanging about their passion which is both entrancing and terrifying. Now it could be argued that the very fact they couldn't have each other was what held them in this destructive pattern but I think that Bronte hints at something very destructive at the heart of their relationship from the beginning. When Cathy says, "I am Heathcliff," she pretty much nails it. They can't see each other as separate beings, they feel they are part of the same whole. And although that is passionate - is it actually love?
We find many of his answers highly interesting and enlightening. Lockwood as the viewer is a great concept. And the explanations behind Cathy's 'new' personality and Joseph's quiet self are quite satisfactory.

Do join the book club and ask him questions of you have any.

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Anonymous said...
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I'd like to say thank you for a truelly wonderful and insightful version of Wuthering Heights - so much so it has entranced my 7 year old daughter and led us to buy the book, the dvd, visit Oakwell Hall, East Riddlesden Hall and watch it over and over. Superb......

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