The Added Attraction of Attractiveness

     Washington Square, written in 1880 by Henry James, and The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler, were similar in many ways. However, they also shared many differences. Henry James told the story of an ugly child raised by an indifferent father and a meddlesome aunt. William Wyler took this story line and embellished it in some ways to make it appealing for the theater-going audience. Both versions are highly enjoyable.

     The major similarity between the versions and between the characters themselves is that both Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson on screen) and Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins in the film) believe their late spouses were wonderful. The funny thing is that every year that goes by these spouses become even more perfect and beautiful in their memories. The poetry Mr. Penniman wrote becomes more eloquent, and Mrs. Sloper becomes more radiant every year. These attitudes affect the characters feelings toward the relationship between Catherine (acted by Olivia de Havilland in the movie) and Morris (depicted on screen by Montgomery Clift). Mr. Sloper sees a child that pales in comparison to his wife and that no good looking young man could love. However, Mrs. Penniman sees a very infatuated Morris surrounded by mystery and love reminding her of her ex-husband.

     William Wyler tried to follow the story line of Washington Square as much as possible in the production of The Heiress, while still keeping the audience interested. This led to a few changes being made. Perhaps the biggest difference of all is that Catherine is neither fat nor ugly in the movie as she is in the book. Olivia de Havilland, who played the part of Catherine, is prettier and slimmer than most attractive women.

     In Washington Square, Dr. Sloper never asked his sister Lavinia to live with him permanently after she arrived when Catherine was quite young. However it was just assumed that she would stay on indefinitely with her dull, placid, unattractive niece. However, in the film, she has shown up shortly before the story opens and receives a direct invitation from Dr. Sloper to remain and try to help Catherine, who is painfully shy around him, to become more outgoing to please her father.

     In the book, Catherine is very indecisive and is involved in very few social engagements. However, in the film Catherine was very witty in the presence of her aunt, if not so in that of her father, and attends many social clubs and even makes a joke about veal at one of them, which she reports to her Aunt Lavinia.

     In the book, Dr. Sloper takes Catherine to Europe, then England after hearing about the engagement and lengthens their trip by an extra six months to give the quietly stubborn Catherine more time to give Morris up--but in vain.. In the film, Dr. Sloper cuts the trip short once Catherine tells him firmly outside the Paris cafe, once a favorite of her father and mother, that she still has no intention of giving Morris up.

.      In the book, Catherine attends to her father while he is on his deathbed and never lets him know that she has been stood up by Morris. However, in the film, Catherine is a stronger woman that informs her father outright that she has been jilted by Morris and been made a fool of. She then even offers to rewrite his will for him. In a nastily dramatic scene, Catherine also refuses to attend to or see her father while he is on his deathbed.

     The most obvious difference between the book and the movie is the way in which Morris is turned away upon his return. In the book, Catherine converses with a fat balding Morris and politely turns him away. However, in the movie, Catherine arranges a time for the still handsome Morris to come back leading him to believe they would run away and marry. Then when Morris returns and knocks on the door, she bolts it, turns out the lights and strides up the stairs triumphantly to bed, leaving a very upset Morris banging dejectedly at the door.

Mendy Adair

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