For a classical structuralist, if you translate a novel into another language you’ve created something new, an independent text with no relation to the original. Feels wrong not to see them as umbilically linked though. If you’ve read War And Peace in English you’ve still read War And Peace. Haven’t you? Or have you read something by Constance Garnett that just casts a sideways glance in the direction of Tolstoy?
The same conceit can be applied to film versions of novels. Nothing illustrates this more starkly than Empire Of The Sun: Ballard’s Jim would be of little interest to Spielberg.
When a new film version of a staple A-Level nineteenth century novel appears, people come to it with expectations. If the novel has lines of dialogue like “I’m animated with hunger; and, seemingly, I must not eat”, one might expect a decorous film. This is after all the way the audience have been schooled over the last several decades. Passion may bristle beneath the bustles, but BBC costume drama is intensely verbal and will likely always remain so. The nineteenth century was brown. DNA evidence reveals that until 1900 everyone in the UK was born with sepia tinted cells in their retinas. The prop builders have done their work with artificially aged door frames and skirting boards, and porcelain wash basins are discreetly cracked, but the story must be carried verbally, with lashings of syntactic complexity. Because that’s how everyone spoke before 1900.
Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold. In the moments prior to Heathcliffe’s return as an adult, a shaven headed Hindley Earnshaw vomits over a wall. He lifts his head and remarks “What the fuck?” when he registers the presence of Heathcliffe. This is not BBC costume drama. It has a lot to do with domestic space – a house as a devised and evolved system that channels our relationship with the wind, the rain, the mud and the heather. Robbie Ryan‘s cinematography chooses hand-held 4:3 as the dominant visual mode. It’s visceral and it uses the medium of film to do things that words can’t do. A recurrent motif, to which we return at the end, is a play fight between the adolescent Cathy and Heathcliffe anchored by a close-up of their hands joined in the mud. The adult Heathcliffe repeatedly beats his bleeding skull against a domestic wall bearing one of Cathy’s childhood drawings, in the room they shared as teenagers. You don’t need a pair of 3D glasses, and you don’t need to travel several miles beneath the ocean in the foetal position. The nineteenth century novel is a historical and aesthetic artefact, a system of communication that worked then and continues to work for some segments of a modern audience. They were just clothes and houses and words then. Emily would approve of bringing the passion out from under the bustle. We now have more ways of doing that than ink and paper. We also have more complex ways of managing domestic space. If you visit The Parsonage you can see the sofa where Emily died. It’s not from Ikea. The props haven’t changed very much since I first went there, but the narrative constructed on those boards that you read as you go round has morphed into a representation of sisters somewhat more outward looking. Emily would have wanted to hang around longer than thirty years, would not have wanted to check out on some tatty sofa and probably didn’t want to look out on a graveyard as she ate her toast and Cheerios. “This coffee tastes funny. We should get the water supply checked out.” She would have liked electricity pylons, she may have been aghast that the economy of Haworth is dependent on her old house, and she would have welcomed the wind turbines onto Thornton Moor.