The Heiress, directed by William Wyler in 1949, is a film adaptation of the novel Washington Square, written by Henry James in 1880. Both follow the same basic plot: Set in the mid 1800's, the story depicts Catherine Sloper as a shy and plain looking woman who lives in a grand estate in Washington Square with her emotionally abusive father, Dr. Austin Sloper. Catherine's mother had died during childbirth; and Catherine has the prospect of living off of her inheritance, $30,000 a year, once she marries; but she will get even more, $20,000 a year, when her father dies. At least she will if her father does not give it all away in a sour grapes gesture of disapproval towards Morris Townsend, a man courting Catherine who just wants her money, or so Dr. Sloper believes.
This basic synopsis could be for the film or novel version of the story, setting up an intriguing tale of trust and romance--but it is deceptive in letting one think that both versions of the story are the same. There are minor changes and alterations made by the scriptwriters, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who had written the 1948 play, The Heiress, to the film version of the story; but the biggest and most important change is the ending.
At the end of Washington Square, Catherine simply dismisses the fat, bearded, balding Morris after he comes crawling back for a second chance after he quietly sneaked away from her years ago. This is a solid ending that most people found suitable, so it would seem haphazard for the scriptwriters and director William Wyler to change it. After all, should not the old saying--"If it ain't broke, don't fix it?"--apply here?
But far from being haphazard, the change that Wyler and the scriptwriters made to the ending shot it out of merely being "solid" and propelled it all the way into the realm of "fantastically memorable." In the film version, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) tells Morris (Montgomery Clift) that she would gladly give him a second chance at an elopement, after he had stood her up the first time, and asks for him to meet her at night so that they may run off together. When he does come for her, Catherine wickedly bars the door and keeps him waiting outside in the rain, futilely pounding on the door and calling her name, as she strides triumphantly up the stairs, carrying her victory torch up high. Her revenge is complete.
Wyler and the scriptwriters took a gamble on changing the ending to a revered novel, but it more than paid off. His ending is much more memorable dramatic than James's original ending and teaches us that altering the source material can sometimes be a good thing.