Last year, Masterpiece Theatre, that public-broadcasting dish of plum pudding, divided itself into three parts. Anglophiles now get their Agatha Christie fix on Masterpiece Mystery! and indulge their tastes for upper-middlebrow drama of a recent vintage on Masterpiece Contemporary, while Masterpiece Classic dallies in ye olde costume dramas with Laura Linney as its host. Last Sunday, teeing up a two-part Tess of the D’Urbervilles, that excellent actor recounted the story of Thomas Hardy’s battle to get the novel published, and the silly camera pulled in and in and in until she was so close that the home viewer could smell the Culture wafting off her, which was the point.
Tess—starring Gemma Arterton, recently and extravagantly pert as a Bond girl named Strawberry Fields—was pleasant, if somewhat more mothbally than Roman Polanski’s version. Later this winter, Masterpiece Classic will host a Dickens festival, so that viewers can spend more time with Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and other such favorites. But before sensitive souls can have another good chuckle at the death of Little Nell, they must once again reckon with Wuthering Heights (beginning Sunday, Jan. 18, on most PBS stations).
This is, to trust IMDb, the 33rd screen adaptation of Emily Brontë’s only novel, that wind-swept tale of the moorlands about an ill-socialized orphan and his eternal passion for a dead woman. It follows the 1939 William Wyler film with Laurence Olivier; a 1978 BBC adaptation flambéed by Clive James’ headline writer as “Wuthering Depths“; a 1992 number with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche; and versions in French, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Spanish, Turkish, Tagalog, and whatever language it is they speak in MTV original films. Seriously: In 2003, the network paired Erika Christensen’s Catherine figure with a guitar-strumming Heathcliff; the beaches of California played the moors of England. It was stupid, but it was onto something.
There are two basic ways to regard the source material and its histrionic melodrama. If you are Virginia Woolf, you ask, “How … can there be truth or insight or the finer shades of emotion in men and women who so little resemble what we have seen ourselves?” before deciding that, impossible a character as Heathcliff surely is, “no boy in literature has a more vivid existence than his.” If you are not, perhaps you ask the same question and then follow the natural course of action and throw the book across the room. Gide sobbed over it; others simply weep at its moody supernaturalism and ponderous gloom; and the modest brilliance of this most recent Wuthering Heights is to entertain both of these camps.
The opening credits rolls as the camera races through the tall grass at a demonic trot, something of a hell-hound’s view. It creeps into Heathcliff’s house and his bedroom and his head room, where visions of the love he lost flash past. Soon the narrative, more economical and less terribly patient than the novel, finds the hero-villain running into the daughter of his beloved by daylight. She spends 10 minutes or so learning that her late mother was once involved with this glamorously unpleasant figure, and then he—in what is maybe a dream sequence, though it scarcely matters—pries open Catherine’s coffin and cuddles with her corpse, and we hop into the main story from there.
Playing the adult Heathcliff, actor Tom Hardy looks like rock star Jack White auditioning for a Tim Burton film and behaves as if directed to discover synonyms for scowl, glower, and skulk unknown to Roget. He is a talented ham, and this is brooding you can use, the anti-heroic centerpiece of a crackling experience. It is common to invoke Classics Illustrated to insult literary adaptations that degrade their sources, but Wuthering Heights is corny to its core, and Masterpiece’s comic-bookish treatment of it is actually elevating. One hears stories about readers who finish bingeing on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightseries and find themselves jonesing for something of the same potency—and they go ripping through their roommates’ bookshelves to see if there’s a hit of Heights up there. (Bella Swan, the heroine of Meyer’s vampire novels, is a big fan.) Stylizing Brontë’s broad strokes, the creators of this latest Wuthering Heights turn weak literature into muscular pop and contrive something perfectly suited to that very audience of Twilight-zoners.