Air Date: Saturday, March 14, 2015 8/7c on Lifetime
After the success of bringing V.C. Andrews’ best-selling book series Flowers in the Attic to television audiences, Lifetime is adding a classic novel among its programming list of adaptations with Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights . Brontë’s gothic love story about the headstrong beauty Catherine Earnshaw and her brooding lover Heathcliff comes to life in director Anthony DiBlasi’s Wuthering High School, a contemporary teen drama set in southern California.
It is said imitation can be the best form of flattery, but sometimes it’s not. Let me preface my review by saying I’m not an elitist who scoffs at the idea of taking a classic novel and reviving the story for a modern generation. In fact, there are some films I love that are modern adaptations. For instance, the heartwarming romance Clueless, which is based on Jane Austin’s Emma, and the hilarious 10 Things I Hate About You, inspired by Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. When I learned Wuthering Heights was being made into a movie for television, I was thrilled; I love the recent PBS production starring Tom Hardy. I had high expectations prior to watching Wuthering High School, which explains my utter disappointment. Despite all the effort put into this telemovie, Wuthering High School does not work at all.
The Story is the Thing
For those unfamiliar with Brontë’s 19th century classic novel Wuthering Heights, it tells the story of Catherine ‘Cathy’ Earnshaw and Heathcliff—two lost souls who grow up together, fall in love, and then fall apart. Through a series of bad life choices and unfortunate circumstances, Cathy and Heathcliff find themselves married to other people. The mismatched union between Cathy and Heathcliff is the heart of the conflict in the book.
In Wuthering High School, the Earnshaws are an affluent family who own a lucrative fashion brand. The head of the household, Mr. Earnshaw (James Caan) also owns a sweatshop where he has hired illegal immigrants. Yes, it gets better. After a raid in one of Earnshaw’s shops leaves a teenage Heath (Andrew Jacobs) separated from his family, he is taken into the Earnshaw household. Earnshaw tells his two children Cathy (Paloma Kwiatkowski) and Lee (Sean Flynn) he is responsible for Heath since his family is being deported to Mexico. Cathy is going through a difficult time coping with her mother’s death (a detail that doesn’t happen in the book). Cathy’s depression about her mother is a subplot that doesn’t add substance to the story lines, but serves as a tool in setting up some of the events in the latter half of the movie.
When Heath arrives to the Earnshaw household, it is his first encounter with Cathy—just like in the book—or so I thought. Turns out, they have not seen each other in years, ever since their days of hanging out at the sweatshop. At first, Heath is resentful of Cathy for their lack of communication, but it’s not long before the two suddenly erupt into a fury of make out sessions. We’re not even halfway into Wuthering High School and I’m grimacing at the screen. So much for building up a love story. The bond Heathcliff and Cathy share in Wuthering Heights is based on their history together, a history we never see in the movie. In order for all the events in the story to be convincing, you have to believe in Cathy and Heath’s love for each other—no matter how insane the circumstances. At this point, the movie resembles more of a crazy Romeo and Juliet story than Wuthering Heights. It also doesn’t help matters that Kwiatkowski and Jacobs lack the kind of intense chemistry necessary to make anyone believe their characters are soul mates.
Three’s a Crowd
What’s a love story without a little conflict? As is the case with many teenage romances, Wuthering High School has a love triangle. Childhood friend Eddie Linton (Matthew Boehm) is the third wheel in this story, and the ‘nice’ guy who looks out for Cathy. Needless to say, Heath is the bad boy. Separately, I think the actors do fine in their scenes, but together, I just don’t see any chemistry at all among the three of them. Kwiatkowski appears apathetic; Jacobs merely makes the most of his scenes; and Boehm looks confused. I don’t fault the actors entirely because it’s the responsibility of director DiBlasi to sort it out, give the actors the proper direction they need, and block the scenes appropriately. Maybe it’s the decision to give Eddie a more distinct California accent, but it’s impossible to take him seriously when he’s facing off against Heath.
Towards the end, in what is supposed to be the most dramatic part of the entire story, Wuthering High School loses its footing. When tragedy happens, and Cathy’s story comes to an end, the confrontation between Eddie and Heath is cringe-worthy at best. I don’t understand why the most intense scene of the movie is shot from above and at a distance. This editing choice makes it hard to tell what’s happening, and more importantly, to appreciate the reactions of both characters in the scene. I wanted to see each of their faces better to gauge their emotions.
Last, but not least, the moment I just could not ignore — the ending. The infamous scene in Wuthering Heights where an older Heathcliff disrupts Cathy’s grave and sleeps in it is significant. It’s a controversial scene that suggests necrophilia, although it’s never quite confirmed. As Wuthering High School comes to a close, Heath is sleeping in Cathy’s grave as rain pours down on them. I’m thinking, there must be another scene, something to tie in the second generation of Earnshaws. Maybe Lee returns to their abandoned home with his own family while the spirits of Cathy and Heath look on from afar? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The grave scene is pretty much it. No plausible explanation, no nothing. Yes, this is just how I like my movies to end, with a bit of necrophilia. I mean, who doesn’t? What a total deal breaker.
The tragedy of Wuthering High School is the movie’s inability to live up to its potential. All the major elements, from the story to its production, are a mess that’s hard to ignore because the movie never comes together. Delondra Williams’ script doesn’t fuse the source material with the liberties she takes in changing the story around. In addition, the pacing of the story is a glaring problem. All the scenes hit their climax but without much character development, making the movie feel rushed in many areas. Where is the epic love story of two lonely childhood sweethearts? If we are to believe Heath’s feelings for Cathy represent the mad kind of love born from years of separation, let’s see it — even if it means a flashback or two. The last time I checked, Wuthering Heights is both Cathy and Heathcliff’s story. Wuthering High School only touches the surface of what makes Heath so destructive, and without access to his past, the movie leads its audience to believe Cathy is the reason for his bad behavior—something that doesn’t sit well with me.
On a positive note, despite the many problems, there are some actors who make the movie somewhat palatable. Caan, whose presence commands attention, is perfect as Mr. Earnshaw. Then there’s Francesca Eastwood, whose portrayal of Ellen—Cathy’s off and on again friend—is refreshing. Ellen evolves from mean girl to devoted friend, and Eastwood’s performance goes so far as to make Ellen more likable than Cathy.
When the movie isn’t forcing dialogue from Wuthering Heights for the actors to recite during awkward scenes, it loses ground with poorly set up story lines. I didn’t get a sense of passion behind the project; instead, I saw a cut and paste job where most of the context written for the script seems to come from a Cliff’s Notes version of the novel. Wuthering Heights is not cut and dry; it’s a story that spans generations and is extremely dark in tone. I wish I could say I love Wuthering High School because I want to love it, but there are some classics that should be left alone.
Official website: http://www.mylifetime.com/movies/wuthering-high-school.
All photos © 2015 Lifetime Networks. All Rights Reserved.
© 2015, Connie Allen. All rights reserved.
Latest posts by Connie Allen (Posts)
- Black Sails—“XXXVIII” Series Finale Review. Legends and Legacies - April 5, 2017
- Black Sails—“XXXVII” Review. Let the Games Begin! - March 28, 2017
- Black Sails – “XXXVI” Review. Until the Bitter End. - March 21, 2017
- Black Sails—“XXXV” Review. A Woman’s Worth. - March 14, 2017