Outstanding Differences

     The 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, is based on Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square. Any time a novel is converted into a screenplay there are always some obvious differences. In many cases the differences in the screenplay do not do the book any justice. In the film The Heiress, William Wyler incorporates some outstanding dissimilarities without venturing far from the original course of the book Washington Square. In my opinion some of the differences incorporated in the film heightened the story and left the viewer somewhat more satisfied than the book leaves the reader. The differences that are most outstanding are found in the changing character of Catherine.

     In the book Catherine is described as a plump, unattractive, and naive girl who is a social outcast. Catherine does not seem to have a mind of her own and lives to please her father, until Morris comes along. Catherine also seems to be a little behind normal society when it comes to being intelligent. She never has any clever comments and has a hard time keeping up with others in conversation.

     In the film version Catherine is not the eyesore that James had created her to be. Wyler gives us Olivia de Havilland, who is slim and attractive in a docile manner. In the film Catherine is shown to have some charming qualities about her when she is in non-threatening company. For an example, Catherine has no problem dancing with her Aunt Lavinia's friend because she is not worried about what he thought of her; but, when she is dancing with Morris (Montgomery Clift), she becomes nervous and clumsy because she is so worried about pleasing him. Another example indicates that, when Catherine is in the presence of her father (Ralph Richardson) she has nothing intelligent or witty to say, but when Catherine is in the company of her aunt (Miriam Hopkins), and the ladies she works with, she makes jokes and seems to be somewhat charming. The film gives the viewers a clue to Catherine's hidden intelligence, which is not clearly depicted in the book.

     Finally the most outstanding difference between the book and the movie has to be the ending. In the book Morris returns fat and bald to Catherine after becoming a complete failure in life and asks Catherine to marry him. Catherine politely turns him down, and that is the end of the story. In the film Wyler shakes things up a little bit. When the still young handsome Morris returns after becoming a failure, Catherine leads him to believe that they will be married if he returns to her later in the night. When Morris returns, he knocks on the door and finds that Catherine had locked the door. As Morris gets more frustrated and bangs on the door, Catherine turns out the lights and strides triumphantly up the stairs to bed.

     In my opinion the film version of the ending is definitely much more gratifying than the book. I felt that Morris got exactly what he deserved. In the book Morris is not taught a lesson, and he has no idea of what Catherine went through the night he stood her up.

Kimberly A. Hunt

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