How Close Is Close Enough?

        However, there are some stories where a detail removed could prove catastrophic. If Cinderella had not left her glass slipper behind, the prince may never have found her again; or, if perhaps Rapunzel had decided to become a hairdresser, her story would have played out differently as well. In cases where books are being turned into movies, it is important for the director to choose if he or she wants this movie to be a close adaptation, and if so he or she must be willing to leave in as many details as possible. The best example of a close adaptation would have to be Washington Square’s 1949 film adaptation, The Heiress, by William Wyler, based on the 1948 play The Heiress, which was written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

        Washington Square is a story which was originally written in 1880 by Henry James. It is a story about a young woman named Catherine, who is described as being very plain. Her father, Dr. Sloper, is the one person in the story who cannot see Catherine as anything but this boring, plain woman. Because of this, he instantly suspects the young and handsome Morris Townsend of wanting more than a companion in asking for Catherine’s hand. Dr. Sloper makes his dislike of Morris known time and time again; but, when he finally announced that he will disinherit Catherine for marrying Mr. Townsend, the story takes a dramatic turn. Morris leaves with barely a word, and Catherine is left hurt and betrayed. Not only is she pained by what Morris has done, but also she is hurt by the knowledge of how little her father thinks of her. Eventually Morris comes back, and Catherine is forced to decide whether she even wants to be with him.

        The movie The Heiress, based on the book and play, is an excellent example of what close adaptations should be. The versions give the audience a clear idea of what Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) means to her father (Ralph Richardson) right at the beginning. One can almost feel the disappointment radiation off of him. The play and movie stick to the details from the book for there on out almost exactly. The adaptations change minute details, such as adding in a dance partner, who almost comically ditches Catherine, removing small, unimportant conversations, and adding lines so that things which would normally be thought are now made know to the audiences.

        The screenplay and movie also add two rather important scenes that were not exactly in the book version. The first addition is Morris’ proposal of eloping with Catherine. In the book, this situation is hinted at but nerve actually comes to be. In the play and movie Morris (Montgomery Clift) begs Catherine to run away with him so that they may get married to convince her father of his love for her; but, when Catherine insist that her father will never change his mind and says that they must rely solely on themselves, the audience can see the switch in Morris’ face. He ends up leaving her there waiting for him all night. The changed detail is not enough that it would affect the story. In the book Morris leaves town in another manner but just as cruelly. The second detail changed for the play and movie is the way Catherine handles Morris’ return so many years later. In the book, she simply refuses to respond to his entreaties and then sticks to her guns by politely kicking him out almost right away. In the play and movie, Catherine takes a more revengeful course. She allows him to think that she will marry him and then leaves him outside in the cold, waiting for as she had waited for him. Although this does slightly change Catherine’s personality it does not change the story at all. Either way Catherine has been forced to harden her heart against the world in order to survive it. She has just hardened it a little more in the movie.

        For as long as some books are, it is a wonder that directors are able to get the information across in as short of a time span as they do. Especially in close adaptation films, it is important to recognize what qualifies as “necessary.” The play and movie The Heiress are excellent examples of works created by people who knew what details were and were not important to the overall story. They did a fabulous job of adding and removing only the appropriate elements of Henry James’s novel Washington Square.

Belinda Sebesnste