A couple of years ago I saw William Wyler's 1949 film version of The Heiress and enjoyed it very much. Recently, when I read Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, I found that I preferred the movie. I thought that Olivia de Havilland brought Catherine Sloper to life in a way that the book failed to do for me. In the first part of the film, she absolutely glowed from the praise that Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) bestowed on her and just as quickly faded away when in her father's (Ralph Richardson) presence. Though the Catherine of the book had deep feelings for Morris, she still remained subdued around him. I liked how de Havilland became so much more animated in Morris' presence. I think the biggest difference in the two versions of Catherine came at the end.
James's Catherine went on to lead a fulfilling life. She was much loved by her family and did a lot for her community. Though she had the several chances to marry, she turned them down. I think that between her father and Morris she was never able to trust a man to really care for her, but she did not let that prevent her with going on with her life. I felt she was very content with the life she had after Morris left her. She showed great strength of character in caring for her father during his illness. She did not let her experience with her father or Morris destroy her.
On the other hand, de Havilland's Catherine turned into a bitter women. She did not trust anyone to tell her the truth. This was evident in her response to Maria when Maria (Vannessa Brown) told her how nice she looked in her Paris dress. She refused to believe that she was not the ugly person her father had thought she was. This Catherine did not look like someone that would be well loved by anyone. In her bitterness, she was not going to allow anyone, including her dying father or the returning penitent Morris to care for her. This was probably a more realistic ending. I think the average person would respond in much the same sour manner given the same searing circumstances.
Therefore, I found the more vividly realistic movie preferable to the more subdued and idealistic book.