There are many differences between Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, and William Wyler's 1949 film, The Heiress. However, the story line remains the same: boy meets girl, girl falls in love, father says no, boy breaks girl's heart. Unfortunately, there is not a typical fairytale ending. In my opinion, Morris Townsend, a very handsome and charming fellow, seemed to be portrayed differently in the novel and the film. I definitely received the wrong impression of Townsend, and I am particularly proud of Olivia de Havilland's Catherine tinkering with the mind of Montgomery Clift's when he returns to sweep her off her feet again. In my opinion, James presented Townsend much more ambiguously in the novel than Wyler did in the film.
In the novel, I was led to believe Townsend had potential and actually developed feelings for Catherine Sloper, an average young woman possessing a good heart, although she was a little naive. Perhaps it would not hurt to mention that she also had potential wealth. At times the idea of Townsend wanting to marry Catherine because of her potential for extreme wealth entered my mind, although, for the most part, I believed Townsend had developed some sort of feelings for her. In return, I knew Catherine viewed Townsend as handsome and kind-hearted. Townsend even waited for her while she visited Paris with her sophisticated and protective father, Dr. Sloper. I found Townsend to be rather patient, but was it the case because he wanted her fortune? After watching the film, I definitely believe so.
As I read the book, I fell into the same trap as Catherine. However, as I watched the movie, I realized I had previously gotten a too optimistic view of Townsend. It was finally clear to me that he was not the greatest catch after all. Did he even love Catherine? While reading the novel, I was very optimistic about him. However, after seeing the film, I thought, what a selfish pig! After breaking her heart once, he had enough guts to come back only two years later, still handsome, while sporting an attractive moustache and ask for her hand in marriage, again! He also had the nerve to say, "Catherine, dear Catherine, we have only waited, and now we are free!" I think he was referring to her overprotective deceased father (Ralph Richardson). That was an indicator that he was after her money, and he did not have to deal with her father anymore.
While reading the novel, I was very frustrated with Catherine because she kept postponing the marriage. After watching the film, I was pleased Catherine had respected her father's words and had not followed through with the marriage. When Townsend returned to propose, she played him so cleverly. She led him to believe that she would accept him, then lured him into a re-enactment of their earlier aborted elopement, then all of a sudden, dropped him like a hat when she ordered the servant, Maria (Vanessa Brown), to bolt the door he was pounding on in vain. She did not want to be deceived again. All I have to say is, "You go girl!" I fell for it the first time like you but finally caught on. The film enabled me to actually see how Townsend acted and through those actions I realized he was not after her love, just her riches