Walking into this course, I was aware director William Wyler had resorted to one of those Charlton Heston epics, this one being Ben Hur. Naturally this does not help prepare a person for such a one-two punch of Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Heiress (1949), partially because they are not biblical epics, but also because they are a more feminine look at things. Wuthering Heights and The Heiress both appear more geared to a fan of soap operas; and, viewing the first of the two, I saw just that. Perhaps you could suppose rather easily that this did not set too well with me.
Being fair on my side of the table, I am aware that Heights is an adaptation of a complexly plotted mammoth of a book, and any fan of the Emily Brontë novel might be set for disappointment when this labyrinth is reduced to a Hollywood love story, complete with requisite happy ending. This was in that so-called "Golden Year" of film, 1939, with The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, and others were released; and, despite its classic status, I felt it was just the sort of Goldwyn-produced romance I expected. Not only that, but it ignores character complexities. No, I did not like Brontë's novel, but it still does not change the simple fact of the matter. Wyler made a decent film in a lucky year with a big name and had a success, and I for one was not surprised, but a little let down by the formulaic creation.
But lo and behold, I see Henry James's 1880 novel Washinton Square brought to life in The Heiress. One great difference is that I actually enjoyed the novel, but better still, Wyler followed it and had me entranced. Ten years after Wuthering Heights, Wyler had, I feel, developed in a lot of ways. His skill as a film maker had grown to a marvelous extent. The music exposed the soul of the female protagonist (Catherine Sloper); the production and photography were used to set a mood that fluxed from light to dark; and the performances led me full throttle into the tale. Olivia de Havilland in particular left an impression on me. No doubt, the difference was in good part to a more skilled director that had a more accomplished goal. This was not just a romantic, formulaic take on a novel, but a developed interpretation of one. The novel, I felt, was brought to life, and I was happy they did it so well.
The moral of the story is not to strictly follow the course of a novel. Look at Dr. Strangelove (1964) (or almost any Kubrick film for that matter), which dropped the dead seriousness of its source novel for a comic tour de force and class exploitation of a Cold War fear in all its ludicrousness. Being faithful can produce a film which is flat or alive, and the real moral is in the life of a story. Adapting anything , it is the cinematic goals that matter. True success, I feel, comes from a great work, not from meeting every mark of the source. Look at the soon-to-be-complete Lord of the Rings films. The film makers dropped Tom Bombadil; they threw the love story of Arwen and Aragorn into the main tale; Helms Deep is the climactic battle extravaganza of The Two Towers, and so on. You know what? They are fantastic novels, and the films are fantastic films. They are faithful to a good extent, but the most important thing is this: spirit. The Heiress had a spirit and life of its own, and that is something I am grateful for.