Hope versus Box Office Sales

††††††††Because Henry Jamesís 1880 novel, Washington Square, told its story through characters more than action, the 1949 movie, The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, needed a bit of doctoring to keep a modern audience interested. However, this meddling with Jamesís original storyline altered his characters, making the heroine, Catherine, into a shrew instead of simply a hurt and lonely woman.

††††††††James had written Catherine as a quiet and dutiful girl whose father grossly underestimates her, believing her to be an ugly and unintelligent human being. The author constructed the novel as a psychological study, so the progression of the book follows Catherineís struggle against her father to marry Morris Townsend, a man whom she loves and whom he hates. In the beginning, she blindly believes her father, Dr. Sloper, loves her dearly; and, because of her kind and trusting nature, she simply assumes he harbors the same affection for her that any father would feel for his daughter. However, as the events unfold, she matures and grows under very harsh circumstances. Not the fool her father took her for, she discovers exactly who she is in the eyes of both her father and her lover; and as a result she learns to stand on her own. She harbors no hatred for either Dr. Sloper or Townsend, but instead, she closes off that part of herself to much emotion at all.

††††††††However, in William Wylerís film version, The Heiress, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) changes much more when she discovers her loverís betrayal and her fatherís (Ralph Richardson) hatred. In the end, she becomes a shrew, angry at those around her and wrathful when Townsend (Montgomery Clift) comes to see her in the end. In the novel, she becomes a matronly role model in the community who is loved by all. However in the movie, she becomes something of a recluse, and when Townsend begs for her hand in marriage at the close of the film, she maliciously leads him to believe she will have him and then locks him out of the house. The final scene depicts her stoically climbing the stairs to bed as he screams her name from outside.

††††††††Personally, although Wylerís version gives more drama to the plot, I like Jamesís Catherine much more. Although she locks her heart away from any other suitor who might offer her happiness, she acquires strength from her trials, while the Hollywood Catherine simply acquires bitterness. Somehow, Jamesís version possesses slight traces of hope in the plotline while Wylerís seems dismal.

Casey Northcutt

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