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

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