At its core, Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights is all about the Yorkshire moors. Stark, forbidding, wildly beautiful, the landscape is more than a mere backdrop. It is landscape raised to the level of symbolic order. Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Brontë‘s 19th-century classic depends on its desolate hell of a setting.
And so, it’s worth wondering what possessed MTV to move this most famous tale of brooding to sunny California? Suri Krishnamma’s MTV’s Wuthering Heights, now available on extras-less DVD, trades the original’s horse carriages for BMWs and tosses in some rock ‘n’ roll for good measure (not to mention a cameo by Ozzy Osborne’s other daughter, Aimee Osborne). “This ain’t your English teacher’s Wuthering Heights,” MTV’s website helpfully informs us. It’s hip, featuring “original tunes by pop maestro Jim Steinman, the brains behind the brawn of Meatloaf’s multi-platinum rock opera Bat Out of Hell.”
Heathcliff is now “Heath,” Catherine is now “Cate,” and the homestead is reduced to “the Heights.” But the bones of the original story remain mostly in place—little boy Heath (Mike Vogel) is discovered wandering about in the night by the good-natured Earnshaw (John Doe), who takes him back to the Heights. Soon Heath is in soul-mate love with Earnshaw’s daughter Cate (Erika Christensen) and in conflict with her brother Hendrix (Johnny Whitworth), no relation to Jimmy.
The primal scene having been set, the story flashes forward 12 or so years. It’s still sunny on the California coast, but not so on the domestic front. Heath, a budding musical talent (of the acoustic guitar sort), has become the apple of Earnshaw and Cate’s eyes, while Hendrix, also a rock star wannabe, is stuck in punk mode. Their fashion preferences register this opposition with banal efficiency: set against Heath’s white t-shirt, blue jeans, and straight blond hair (so earnest!), we have Hendrix in tattoos, spiked-up hair, and chains.
As Heath croons a love ballad (in the new studio that Earnshaw provides him as a birthday present), Hendrix skulks around the margins with suitably “angry” rock music playing in his background. It’s so boy-band: if you added three more easily identifiable kids, you’d have the inflection of virtue and danger required by the formula. You can almost hear the producers’ pitch: “It’s Heathcliff and Catherine via Justin and Britney—tragic love, but without all those heavy wool broadcloths.”
Most of us know the tragic story (our English teachers made us read it, right?). Heathcliff’s demons end up destroying Catherine, himself, and just about everyone else around them. If anything, we all know it too well. Krishnamma manages only to reduce this drama to its basest level, infusing it with a junior high school level emotive vacuity. Heath and Cate’s relationship spirals apart because if the expected misunderstandings and machinations of others, say, the evil Lintons—Edward (Chris Masterson) and Isabel (Katherine Heigl)—with respective sexual designs on Cate and Heath.
Equally predictable is the movie’s fixing upon adolescent melodrama. Heath sublimates his failure to keep Cate by riding off on his motorcycle to become a big rock star, his lyrics serving as an open window into his tortured heart. He becomes really famous, really fast, while Cate falls into the arms of Edward Linton, a cold fish (he plays the cello and classical music) who will at least “protect her” and “keep her safe.” Which is to say, MTV’s Wuthering heights trots out the familiar “bad boy” versus “nice boy” dilemma.
None of this is handled with anything approaching imagination by Krishnamma or the screenwriters: high points have Heath yelling at Cate, “Why can’t you feel the same way I do? Why?” and later, “Your heart’s not beating as fast as mine! I’ll make it beat faster” and the dissolves between scenes become repetitive. Though the lovers end up apart (due to a little problem called death), they’ve “worked things out” together. Bad boy Heath has learned his lesson and the “safe” boy has been suitably chastened for shooting for the stars. True love conquers all, here, if not in Brontë‘s novel. This new, popped up iteration wouldn’t want to depress its target audience.