The Characters Make The Heiress

        Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square centers on the very quick courtship of Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend. The book plods through the storyline, although there is just enough drama to keep the reader mildly interested. The reader must read on to find out what happens with the soap opera-like tale of the simple, seemingly foolish girl and the conniving man who is ready to not only steal her heart but her proposed fortune as well. The 1949 movie adaptation, entitled The Heiress (directed by William Wyler), rips the best parts of the plot from James’s book and brilliantly casts each role to create a film that is much more gripping than the book could ever be.

        Dr. Austin Sloper, Catherine’s father, is reprised by Ralph Richardson, who had the role in a London play (written by the Goetzs, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie). Richardson had a natural gruffness and was obviously very comfortable with the role, and that set the tone for other actors. Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland made a pair that could rival any box office banking couple today. Clift had the looks to get Morris’ foot in the door, as well as the easy and calm demeanor needed for his character to be able to pull off his mean motives. But Clift also made Morris more likable than the novel ever could. This made the climax of the movie even more difficult for the viewer because of the overwhelming joy one felt for Catherine, but Morris’ realization outside her door was as overwhelmingly heartbreaking. When the scene cuts to Morris, the emotions are placed with him, and that makes the movie resound even deeper than expected. But Olivia de Havilland, who played the role of Catherine, came across more human than the book allowed. De Havilland was riveting on screen with her every emotion displayed beautifully on her face, and therefore she really brings the “just can’t look away!” factor needed to pull this movie away from the book and really make it something great.

         The Heiress is one of the very few movies where the film adaptation was possibly better than the book, and it is due in great debt to the actors who made each character their own. That factor made the film one that could be watched multiple times and still have new parts to appreciate with each viewing.

Katie Locke