Never mind the bonnets – let's remix the classics

Familiar stories are being told on the big screen in new and radical ways. Jonathan Romney on the directors not afraid to resist tradition

It is, we've always been told, something the British are terribly good at: putting the classics on screen.

But of late, it's begun to seem that Brit Lit cinema has exhausted itself, or at least calcified into a formula: blushing ingénues, handsomely lit drawing rooms and Judi Dench in a bonnet.

Two new British films, however, propose radically different, but equally audacious ways of adapting classic texts. One, released this week, is Wuthering Heights by director Andrea Arnold, whose Red Road and Fish Tank established her poetic approach to contemporary tower-block realism. Arnold's version of Emily Brontë remains true to that vision, despite the rural backdrop. The other is Michael Winterbottom's Trishna, set in present-day India but based on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Arnold's Wuthering Heights will inevitably be seen in the context of a tradition that sees the book as a breast-heaving tale of windswept passion: a tradition that takes in Heathcliffs from Laurence Olivier to Ralph Fiennes, and even (God help us) Cliff Richard. But Arnold's unvarnished version reminds us that Brontë's novel is above all a tale of pathological hatred, revenge and territorial conflict.

The director recalls scepticism when the film was announced: "One blog said, 'Can you imagine Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights: 'Ere Heathcliff, put that fuckin' grouse down ...'." In fact, that's not so far from the truth: Arnold's film eschews genteel literary diction and contains as much effing and blinding as Fish Tank. Originally, Arnold imagined a present-day approach. "I came up to Haworth at the beginning and I saw a lad walking down one of these lonely country roads. He had a hoodie; he was skulking down the road, and I thought, 'That's Heathcliff'. I started writing a contemporary version with Heathcliff as a troubled kid who'd been in foster homes. But it felt wrong – there's a layer in the book that's about what it was to be female at that time, so I went back to the period."

The film's most controversial innovation is the introduction of a black Heathcliff, played by James Howson – something that may strike traditionalists as perverse, though Arnold argues that it's implicit in Brontë's description of a stray child discovered in Liverpool. "He arrives like this invader from nowhere," says Arnold, "and he's very different from everyone else. I wondered if he could have been a Romany, but Liverpool was a great slave port at that time, and there would have been a lot of slaves coming out of Liverpool."

On one level, Arnold's Wuthering Heights is an austerely impressionistic study of Northern landscape, but there's also a political edge to the film, its themes of race and class making it very much an essay on England's historical stresses. Equally political is Michael Winterbottom's Trishna. In it, Thomas Hardy's Wessex maid Tess becomes a young woman from a Rajasthan village (Freida Pinto) who catches the eye of a moneyed playboy. They become lovers; he whisks her off to Mumbai's movies-and-money culture, and tragedy ensues. Despite appearances, Winterbottom insists, Trishna allowed him to be truer to his source than in Jude, his 1996 version of Jude the Obscure, which presented Hardy's scholar hero as a prototype Angry Young Man.

"What I like about Hardy," says Winterbottom, "is that he's radical – he shows how an individual's story is shaped by cultural and economic forces. When you do a literal adaptation, it's very hard to get a sense of a story being modern. He looks at what happens to people who come from a conservative, static village world, and are suddenly given the opportunity of moving into a more mobile, more educated urban world. When you go to India, you get an immediate sense of those things."

Arnold and Winterbottom are fortunate in that they're dealing with texts not excessively burdened by expectations. With Jane Austen, conversely, one's hands are more or less tied: the potency of the Jane brand implies certain obligatory values and furnishings: landscapes as finely manicured as the heroines, crisp decorum above all. Within this set of restraints, it's possible for films to offer only variations on a theme, inject a dash of louche glamour (Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park), highlight the brittle comedy of manners (Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility), or play up a broader landscape Romanticism (Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice). Only one Austen adaptation has dared to get really grubbily realistic, and that is Roger Michell's strikingly unglamorous BBC Persuasion of 1995. With Dickens, a rough-edged, expressionistic treatment has always been considered appropriate – exemplified by the 2005 serialisation of Bleak House – and the keynote mood of "Dirty Dickens" has haunted TV's revisionist neo-Victoriana, notably adaptations of Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White.

One simple technique for freshening up familiar texts is sexed-up casting, bringing in hip new acting or directing talent: Arnold does it in Wuthering Heights, casting Kaya Scodelario, from TV's Skins, as Cathy. Another example was this autumn's Jane Eyre, teaming Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender with a no less groovy director in Cary Fukunaga, who made the tough Latino drama Sin Nombre.

Perhaps it's only Britain's literary heritage that instils quite such a nervous attitude towards tradition. In the rest of Europe, where the repertoire hasn't been mined as exhaustively, it's still possible to do a period piece without agonising over ways to make it new. Catherine Breillat is among Euro-auteurs who have taken on salon-bound period drama and played it surprisingly straight – and yet, in their own ways, irreducibly weird.

Love or hate Trishna and Wuthering Heights, they show film-makers confronting the dead hand of tradition and giving it a sharp slap on the wrist.

'Wuthering Heights' is out this week – 'Trishna' is released in March 2012

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?