The Problem from My Point of View

     It is clear in Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square that the greedy, self-concerned Morris Townsend has duped Catherine Sloper into believing he loves her genuinely. James makes the reality of the situation, that the actual intentions of the handsome young man are less than noble, perfectly clear to the reader through his use of point of view. In The Heiress, William Wyler's 1949 film version, Morris' true colors are not made quite so obvious.

     In fact, while viewing The Heiress, I actually found myself siding with Morris rather than Catherine's father, Dr. Sloper, whom I had sided with while reading the novel. I felt that Morris (Montgomery Clift) might, perhaps, be misunderstood; maybe he really does love Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). After all, he certainly had me convinced. Doubtless, this partly has to do with Montgomery Clift's excellent acting skills. A reader envisioning the Morris in the novel would probably not have imagined him to be quite as convincing as Clift was in the film. The problem was that in the novel the reader was able to catch glimpses of Morris' inner thoughts, which helped to betray his real attitude. On at least two occasions in Washington Square readers are shown the unfavorable attitudes that Morris has of others and more importantly of Catherine. One of these instances occurs while he is meeting with Mrs. Penniman. During the course of their meeting he says to himself, "The woman's an idiot." Worse still is when he exclaims to himself, "Gracious Heaven, what a dull woman!" while speaking to Catherine (73, 106). In a film, of course, such insight is harder to achieve.

     This is a perfect example of one of the chief problems with adapting novels into screenplays. Not only must one must present the plot in a more concise format, but the omission of an explanatory narrator is almost always unavoidable. The end result is a meaning different from the original. Sometimes the difference is slight; sometimes it is considerable.

     Obviously, point of view makes quite a difference in both novels and films. It can have a great impact on a reader's/viewer's perceptions. In essence, the task of adapting a novel into a screenplay can be tricky and depending upon the viewer's knowledge of the original story the feedback can be positive or negative. Consider how audiences might have reacted if Disney had ended its animated production of the classic fairy tale Cinderella on a sour note, and you will see what I mean. On the whole, however, the average viewer will be unaffected by these "adjustments." Those of us who have read the literature will simply have to accept the changes, appreciate and realize why they were made, and tolerate them.

Emily V. Williams

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