A Tale of Two Catherines

     Catherine Sloper was the dominant female character in Henry James's 1880 Washington Square. William Wyler's film version of the book, The Heiress, came out in 1949. Since movies that come from books are usually not well done, one might first believe this adaptation would be the same way. Wyler did get away from the story line that James had used, but what Wyler did made The Heiress a successful adaptation of Washington Square.

     The Heiress was in black and white, which did not seem to take away from anything in the action. In fact, one could argue that it helped bring out an underlying theme. As the book and movie go on, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) becomes almost like a tragic heroine. The idea of black and white helps describe Catherine's world. She loves her father, but Morris (Montgomery Clift) also cannot seem to break away from her father's (Ralph Richards) rule. Then as we go on, different things happen to her; and we can see that her life is like an emotional roller coaster, which she can never gain control of. The idea of black and white helps prove her feelings before and after standing up to her father and being stood up by Morris. The black represents the darkness, which she should have dived in, while the white represents minor victories and shreds of hope as she goes on. For example, it is dark when Morris stands her up, and we see the deep shadows Wyler used on Catherine and outside as well as on the clock. But, when she stands up to her father, the scene is more white than black as she gains her independence from him.

     The main differences between the book and the movie deal with the portrayal of Catherine. James made Catherine weak and almost helpless. Dr. Sloper was the dominant character in the book, and James gave his readers the feeling Catherine would never amount to anything because she would not stand up to her father. Then the thing with Morris really did show how Catherine was going to die a cold and lonely woman. When Morris came back, she did talk to him but nothing else. As the book ended, we are to believe Catherine rarely left the house and never found happiness or love.

     Wyler chose to take the idea differently in The Heiress. Just as in James's book, the early parts of the movie lent the idea of Dr. Sloper ruling around Catherine. It even went to the point that, after they got back from the trip to Europe, Dr. Sloper still detested the idea of his daughter marrying Morris. In a great scene Catherine exploded on her father, telling him to back off. She told him he never really loved her because she was not as pretty or as smart as her mother had been. This was Wyler's way of a minor victory for the tragic heroine. Never in the book could one get the feeling that Catherine's life was going to get better.

     The movie followed the book again where Morris left her, and her father died. It showed Catherine's feelings of sorrow and despair. Then just as James does in the book, Wyler had the character of Morris reenter Catherine's life. One could see the hurt in her eyes; but, unlike James, Wyler added an interesting twist. He made it seem that Morris had good reasons for doing what he did and was very sorry. Catherine, after little persuasion, agreed to drop everything and marry Morris the next day. She made him leave, and then it cut to the final scene. As Morris knocked on the door on that cold night, Wyler had Catherine tell the maid to ignore the door. After a standstill, Catherine shut off the doors in the living room and paused at the door at which Morris pounding. She then turned and went up the stairs in the same manner she had gone up the night he had left her, slow and steady. There was still pain in her heart, but teaching Morris a lesson was a brilliant scheme from Wyler, and one cannot tell that tell Catherine would ever marry or be happy again, but at least in Wyler's movie a sense of strength and independence was evident as she left Morris on the doorstep.

     Some may argue that leaving Morris was as low as Catherine could fall, but I tend to disagree. Catherine had been hurt by two men; and, thanks to Wyler, she got back a little piece of herself when she stood up to her father and left Morris. This made The Heiress a very successful adaptation of Henry James's book Washington Square. As viewers watched the end of the movie, Catherine was their heroine instead of their goat.

Tim Alsobrooks

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