But Who Says the Heights Have to, Like, Wuther?



No need for Wuthering. It is just "the Heights."

In the MTV version of Emily Brontë's novel tomorrow night, the wild moors have been dropped for the cool California coast, and the patriarch is Earnshaw, a counterculture dropout. The heroine is called Cate and her older brother,
Hindley, is renamed, rather brilliantly, Hendrix, a hard-partying Goth. Cate's soulmate is Heath, a soulful rock balladeer (Hendrix sneeringly calls him Faux-Bro), but Cate is also drawn to Edward and Isabel Linton, rich and pampered teenagers in a neighboring Mediterranean McMansion.

In short, the idea behind MTV's version of "Wuthering Heights" is perfect. Sadly, however, the execution does not quite live up to the summary. As "Clueless," the 1995 movie adaption of Jane Austen's "Emma," proved conclusively, writers can take as much liberty as they please with a classic as long as they remain faithful to the spirit of the work.

This version tries too hard to follow the original plot, but turns the legendary romance into Lovers Lite.
The world did not need another faithful rendition of "Wuthering Heights," after the Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche version shown on TNT in 1994. But television should adapt the classics more liberally, more often. MTV, which two years ago showed a hip-hop "Carmen" with Beyoncé, would be the logical place for a Juniorpiece Theater.
Daphne Du Maurier's Gothic romance "Rebecca" could easily be set in a high school ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley 90210"). So could Goethe ("Young Werther Has Issues"). Instead of mindlessly copying an existing British comedy like "Coupling," NBC should consider adapting D. H. Lawrence for a spinoff. ("Sons and Lovers and Friends" — Central Perk opens a branch in Nottinghamshire.)

Hollywood has made some very smart movies by dumbing down the classics. Besides "Clueless," the 1999 movie "10 Things I Hate About You," a high-school version of "Taming of the Shrew" starring Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, was deliciously inventive. Even Ethan Hawke's "Hamlet," set in the modern world the Denmark Corporation, was clever.

"Wuthering Heights" has its moments, especially when jump-cutting scenes of Heath's rise from squatter to rock star. Most of the songs were written for the film by Jim Steinman, a veteran pop composer whose oeuvre includes Meatloaf's "Bat Out of Hell."

Teenage girls may get a kick out of it, but for a broader audience it could and should have been better. Brontë's Catherine and Heathcliff were willful, tempestuous and not particularly likable.
Even the static actress Merle Oberon managed to convey her character's magnificent self-obsession in the 1939 movie version, which starred Laurence Olivier.

Played by Erika Christensen ("Traffic"), Cate is sweet and passive, while the Heath of Mike Vogel ("Grounded for Life") is more whiny than wild. Isabel, played by Katherine Heigl ("Roswell") steals the movie as a sexy, scheming
high-school Alpha girl. (Best moment: Isabel takes Heath to live with her at a fancy girl's boarding school dorm, where she happens to keep a small recording studio by her bed.)

The casting is a problem. Both Ms. Christensen and Mr. Vogel are blond, well fed and even beefy — they look less like tormented lovers than evidence that European fears about American genetically modified foods may not be entirely groundless.

Mr. Vogel's bland surfer looks make it all the harder for him to convincingly play a brutish lowlife who embarrasses Cate when she is with the rich, sophisticated Lintons. In scruffy hair and faded jeans, he looks as if he belongs there more than she does. A more nuanced actor with a more smoldering, ethnic look would have been more persuasive.

Still, even Emily Brontë would not disagree with one of the lyrics that make Heath a rock superstar: "Maybe you're better off dead."

MTV, Sunday night at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.Directed by Suri Krishnamma; music composed by Jim Steinman.
WITH: Erika Christensen (Cate), Mike Vogel (Heath), Chris Masterson (Edward), Johnny Whitworth (Hendrix), Katherine Heigl (Isabel), Aimee Osbourne (Raquelle) and John Doe (Earnshaw).




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