From Theme to Plot

         In the world of a screenwriter there are few task more arduous than the adaptation of a great novel to the screen. The idea of taking a masterpiece of literature and making it just another bad movie is a justifiable fear, especially when one considers the number of times screen writers have failed at the daunting task of a successful adaptation. One successful attempt at converting a book to the screen is the film The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler and based on the 1880 book Washington Square, by Henry James. Wyler has a gift for taking the overall deeper themes of the book and turning them into important plot details, such as taking the unspoken cleverness of Catherine in Washington Square and simply making it more visible in the Catherine played by Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress.

         Making the implied themes more visible in the plot is a useful tool in movie making that helps translate vast amount of information from the book into a more compact two-hour format. The only problem with this is the chance the director takes at insulting the audience members' intelligence by assuming they are not clever enough to pick up on the same underlying themes that are depicted in the book. Henry James's Washington Square is a work with characters of deep motives and traits that almost always go unsaid, while the film The Heiress has no cryptic elements and translates all feeling through clear dialogue that sometimes leaves the viewer feeling robbed of a deeper experience.

         In one of the first scenes in the film The Heiress Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) comments to his servant: "If you have children, you should have several so all your hopes do not depend on one child." By saying this, Dr. Sloper shows his disappointment in his daughter Catherine, this is something that the book never permits to be said aloud, but which the movie says very quick and directly to the audience. The type of direct story telling undertaken by William Wyler does a remarkable job of getting the basic ideas of the book across but denies the personal experience a reader gets from feeling out the characters for him or herself. The best character adaptation in The Heiress is Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), whom Wyler shows as the same connivingly handsome smooth talking gold digger portrayed in the book Washington Square. The director keeps the true character of Morris hidden well enough from the viewers that they still manage to maintain some sort of compassion for him, even though they are quasi-aware of his true motives.

         Overall, the movie The Heiress does a excellent job of expressing what Henry James originally wrote and does so in a timely, well-paced manner. William Wyler creates heroes and villains in much more of a clean-cut fashion than does Henry James. Wyler has made a solid plot-driven film out of James's theme-heavy book by pushing the limits of character adaptation in The Heiress, without changing the formula of everyday film making.

Dennis H. Robison

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