The HeightsThe Heights by Brian James is defined by the publishers as a contemporization of Wuthering Heights adapted for young adult readers. But true as they are, both publicity-oriented definitions they have to be qualified.
feiwel & friends
Published: May 2009
Grade Range: 7 and up
Age Range: 12 and up
Young Adult Fiction
Trim: 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches
The contemporization should not be understood as retelling of the original story with settings, situations and dialogues updated to the current trends. As a matter of fact, Brian James is quite careful not to date the action too much. There are no references, or just general ones, to computers, internet or mobile phones. The language is simple, direct, modern but not particularly 'dated' (the use of slang is minimum). Nevertheless, reiterations abound and its style cannot be described as an example of narrative economy(1).
The Yorshire moors are exchanged for the foggy San Francisco in, what is probably, one of the biggest deviations from the original novel by The Heights. The isolation and the desolate and vastness of the Yorkshire landscapes are an integral part of the action and the psychologies of the characters and not easily translated to the the steep streets of San Francisco or the Golden Gate(2).
Brian James also introduces several changes in the narrative of the original novel. Not least of them is the absence of a Lockwood-like figure transposed here in the inner voices of both Heathcliff, Henry in The Heights, and Catherine to alternatively expose the facts. Sometimes taking the narrative where the other leaves it, sometimes both narratives overlapping and complementing themselves (not in a Rashomon-like kind of way, though). Nelly, the other interposed narrator created by Emily Brontë, gets revamped as a sort of best-friend figure for the character of Catherine. No trace is left of Joseph, a certainly difficult character to bring to the 21st century. The original story is also modified, not only because the second generation is ignored, as in many other adaptations, but because not unsurprisingly Brian James centers his approach around the teenage years of the couple when he follows more closely the skeleton of the original story. Once the pivotal moment of Heathcliff's disappearance arrives, Brian James chooses a different path, exchanging the physical disappearance for a sort of psychological one, and from now on the novel gets a new impulse and wanders along more unforeseeable paths leading into a nonetheless predictable, but touching, moment(3).
The main changes, nevertheless, as compared to Emily Brontë's creation are not in the plot, copious as they are, but in the main characters' psychologies. It should not be forgotten that this is a YA novel and, as the author himself states
"In my opinion, [Heathcliff's] character was certainly the major component of the book that needed updating. Sympathy for Heathcliff's character need to run deeply throughout the book."A conclusion that probably Charlotte Brontë herself would have bought(4). Therefore, Henry's differences are not only cosmetic (he is of Mexican origins for instance) but they run much deeper instead. Giving him a voice, Brian James humanises him, gives him an almost poetical voice and the violence and thirst of revenge shown in the original Wuthering Heights are quite diluted even though he mistreats Isabelle and ignores Cathy's pleas, he is no match for the hanging-puppies original Heathcliff. A similar treatment is given to Catherine. The original unstable, spoiled brat is exchanged in favour of a highly likable character. Her motivations to choose Edgar over Henry are much more pristine and logical that the capricious Cathy's attachment to Linton. Obviously, Brian James is aware that without a character with which his readers can identify, the novel would fail (and The Heights doesn't fail). Concerning the other characters, Hindley shares the same characteristics of the original one, Edgar is far more likable than the original Linton, Isabelle is not so lucky and gets from Brian James the same treatment (or worse) that Emily Brontë applied to the original Isabella.
Finally, a consideration about the verisimilitude of the story. If--notice the conditional--this were a 'realistic' novel addressed to a general audience, we would complain about the unrealistic portrait of drugs and sex in the general context of middle-high class West Coast teenagers(5) but concerning the audience to which the book is addressed, young adult readers, the contention of Brian James is praiseworthy. Novels with such a specific target should take these issues very seriously and the author is highly aware of it.
(1) For example, the reader is reminded ad nauseam of how much Henry considers that Catherine and him are meant to be and of the cosmical bound that links them together.
(2) Nevertheless the author justifies his election convincingly here.
(3) But the final coda (the epilogue) is quite an anticlimax in the opinion of this reviewer.
(4) "Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is." (Charlotte Brontë, Editor's Preface to the New Edition of 'Wuthering Heights', 1850)
(5) Too tame in both cases.
Categories: Books, Review, Wuthering Heights