There are several differences between Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, and the 1949 cinematic adaptation, The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, and based on the 1948 Broadway play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who also wrote the screenplay. In my opinion, the most striking difference between the two is the behavior of Catherine (played by Olivia de Havilland) with the dying Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and the repentant Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift).
In James's novel, Catherine is forever gracious and polite, even to those who are not so gracious and polite to her. Although her father never comes right out and tells her, she finally receives the impression that he is not fond of her. Although he loves her as any father should love his daughter, he is not particularly fond of her and of her personality. She does not live up to his expectations, and he is profoundly disappointed in her. When she finally realizes this, she never confronts him or treats him differently. She is always the obedient and caring daughter, and she cares for him up until his final days. Her one small act of revenge is refusing to tell her father on his deathbed that she will never marry Morris. She has no intentions to do so, but she refuses to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. When he exacts revenge by altering his will and leaving her less money, she accepts it gracefully and says that she is glad that it is that way. Towards the end of the novel, an older and much balder Morris Townsend returns to the Sloper's residence to attempt friendship with Catherine at Mrs. Penniman's request. She politely refuses him and asks him to no longer return. She is gracious but firm, and her integrity remains intact.
In the cinematic adaptation, Catherine loses some of her integrity. The movie begins with Catherine being portrayed as sweet and naïve, just as she is in the novel. Then, there is a particularly nasty scene where Dr. Sloper tells Catherine why he does not think that Morris loves her and proceeds to tell her every way in which she is a disappointment. This is followed shortly by Aunt Penniman (played by Miriam Hopkins) informing Catherine that she should not have told Morris about losing her father's inheritance because it could have changed his mind. This is somewhat dramatic and extremely difficult for a young girl to hear. But does Catherine accept the misgivings of those nearest her? Does she remain her sweet and kind self despite them and prove herself to be the better person? The answer is no. Instead, Catherine turns into a replica of her father and becomes quite cruel herself. She refuses to grant her father's dying wish to see her. When a repentant and still handsome Morris comes begging her to take him back, she leads him to believe that she will. She does this only to have him come back and leave him banging on the front door, begging to be let in. Her aunt questions her cruelty, and Catherine icily replies that she has learned from the best. Rather than proving herself to be a strong and remarkable woman, she instead turns into an exact replica of the person who had treated her so cruelly. She lowers her standards and thus loses her integrity.
Although the movie's purpose was to show that Catherine was strong and independent and could stand up for herself, I strongly believe that something was lost by making her appear so cruel. A woman can stand up for herself while still keeping her integrity, a point that seems lost on the movie's writers and director. Being able to look adversity in the face and still remain unchanged is a strength that precious few people can boast of.