The ending of books and movies are a very important ingredient to the final outcome and overall reaction of their audiences. Director William Wyler's 1949 film, The Heiress, which is based on Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, took a huge gamble with its ending. This gamble I believe paid off, for it gave the film a more satisfying ending than that of the book.
Both Washington Square and The Heiress follow the life of Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), who lives in the neighborhood of Washington Square with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Catherine's mother had sadly died due to a difficult birth. Hence, Catherine is left with her father, who believes she is a disgrace due to her not being a boy, not looking as beautiful as her mother, and being not as clever as he is or his wife was. If this is not a bad enough situation to live in, Catherine gets told to do whatever he wants her to do and when to do it.
This miserable life seems to be coming to a close when she meets the handsome Morris Townsend. Dr. Sloper believes that there is some kind of a reason why Morris (Montgomery Clift) wants to be in a relationship with his daughter because she does not have anything to offer him so far as looks and charm go. He believes that Morris only wants the fortune which Catherine will inherit. Unfortunately, Catherine's father is correct in his thinking because, when Morris learns that her father will disinherit Catherine so that she will get only the $10,000 that her mother has left her but not the $20,000 that her father will leave her if she marries Morris, he runs away.
Both the movie and novel have very few differences until this point in its plot. In the book, Morris returns years later as a fat, bald, old man to try to beg for forgiveness and win Catherine back. Catherine does not take him back; she simply dismisses him in a quiet, nice way. The ending to The Heiress is quite different and far more dramatic. When the still handsome Morris returns, they plan to elope in the same way in which they had planned to do years before. But when Morris comes back, Catherine gives him what he deserves. She does not answer the door when he knocks, but instead she has her maid, Maria, who is not in the novel, bolt the door to prevent Morris from entering and marches up the stairs, holding her lamp high in revengeful triumph over the way Morris had treated her in the past.
The two endings leave their viewers with different responses. The book was a quiet, dignified, settled appropriate ending, while, the conclusion to the film far more dramatically satisfying because Morris got what he had so richly deserved. The gamble that was taken was a huge success and made the whole cinematic story a much more dramatic novel than the original.