Revealing Films

        When comparing books and films, one should consider which best presented the story it was assigned. Often the book easily wins because it does not have the constraints of time and details being lost in translation.† The textual version of a story is often rich and full of details that take the reader into the story.† Films usually cannot carry that weight.† In the case of Henry Jamesís 1880 novel Washington Square, it pales in comparison to the 1948 play based on it, titled The Heiress, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and filmed in 1949 by William Wyler.

         The novel tells of a dull girl named Catherine who wants nothing more than to please her father, Dr. Sloper, who can never be pleased by Catherine because she does not represent the image he has of her mother. They are joined in their household by Dr. Sloperís sister, Aunt Lavina Penniman.† Aunt Penniman is a foolish romantic, who tries to use Catherineís life vicariously, and lead the romantic lifestyle of which she dreams..

        This family dynamic might be content to exist as is, if not for the interloping Morris Townsend, a young and charming fortune hunter.† The result is that Morris elevates Catherineís ideas of a happy life, leading her to realize she is not happy with her current lifestyle. Dr. Sloperís displeasure with Townsend and his suspicion of his fortune hunting tendencies, provoke him to threaten Catherine with disinheritance, upon a marriage between Townsend and herself. Townsend, of course, runs off, leaving poor Catherine alone and awakened to the miserable state she lives in. Neither Aunt Penniman nor Dr. Sloper is of comfort to Catherine because after all she is just a tool to them.† In the end Catherine settles into life as an old maid and finds what comfort she can in it.† Aunt Penniman and Dr. Sloper reach the end of their lives without ever being able to control Catherine again.

        The problem with the novel is that the characters are not described well enough to support the extreme actions they take. In the play, filmed by William Wyler, this flaw is resolved beautifully.† Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) is a nice, charming girl, but only with her aunt (Miriam Hopkins). She is only dull to her father because she is not an exact replica of her mother, or rather the idealized version her father has of her mother. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) acts very harshly towards almost everyone due to his high expectations of people in general. Aunt Penniman is just a silly woman who wants to have a frivolous lifestyle but does want what she thinks is best for Catherine.† Morris (Montgomery Clift) serves the same purpose in the play in raising Catherineís expectations. In the play it is clearer that all she really wants from Morris is to feel loved and to be doted upon, as she never was by her father. Also after Morris leaves Dr. Sloper and Aunt Penniman try to gain back Catherineís good graces, but Catherine becomes a cold and strong-willed woman and does not give them the satisfaction they crave. She does not settle into a quiet life; instead she creates a life that makes her happy. Her life is happy enough that when Morris comes calling at the end of the play, she harshly rebukes him and goes about her life.

        To conclude I believe that novels should take advantage of the format and include as much detail as possible to make the story believable and captivating. If a novel cannot complete this task, then it is the job of the film version to reveal the life of a story.

Lace Gilger