Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde:

The Difference Between Catherine's Character
in The Heiress and Washington Square

     It seems that the silver screen's adaptations of literature tend to make characters more dramatic and extreme than they appear in their original works. Perhaps this is so that the film maker can provide the moviegoer the full character development that he or she would get by reading the book. A quintessential example of this portrayal can be found in William Wyler's 1949 classic film The Heiress, which is an adaptation of Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square. The final scene in both the film and novel end with Catherine rejecting Morris' proposal; however, the film's version provides more flair and drama.

     At the end of the story, Catherine's long-lost love Morris Townsend returns to take her back after failing to appear at their planned elopement years earlier. In the book, Catherine dismisses him in a polite yet stern manner. She indicates that she does not despise or hate him and that she has forgiven him; however, she tells him that she cannot take him back. Although she had gained maturity throughout the years, she still possessed a sense of naivity. This is indicated in the following passage: She made a great effort; she wished to say something that would make it impossible should he ever again cross her threshold (172).

     The movie version provides a more cruel and street-smart Catherine. Played by Olivia de Havilland, the motion-picture Catherine possesses a hungry appetite for revenge. Catherine pretends to be accepting Morris Townsend's (Montgomery Clift) pitiful excuse for disappearing and appears to have succumbed to his charm. Catherine leads him on like a dog on a leash, telling him she had never gotten over her love for him and that she would be glad to take him back. After Morris leaves to prepare for another elopement, Catherine calmly returns to her embroidery with no apparent intentions of leaving her home. Later, as Morris is pounding on the door begging for forgiveness, the viewer cannot help but notice a cold, bitter yet satisfied nature surrounding Catherine. Instead of displaying the pain of rejecting Morris, the movie shows Catherine enjoying his agony.

     While both the film and the book showed Catherine dismissing Morris in the end, the film took a more dramatic approach in the manner in which she let him go. Instead of making her decision painful and hinting traces of long-lost love, Catherine makes it seem that she had been planning this for some time, and she certainly possessed no remorse in her actions. By the film taking this route, the viewers emotions can be stimulated more efficiently while at the same time the overall element of the story's ending is preserved.

Adam Thompson

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