Bringing James’s Novel to Life on the Screen

         The 1880 novel Washington Square, by Henry James was a good book. It was a little dry and boring at times, but the plot was good. The 1949 film version, The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, was a great portrayal of the novel; and it did an excellent job of making the novel come to life.

         The film did a great job of portraying the relationship between Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and his daughter, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland). In the film, Catherine is so plain and shy that she does not like to attend social gatherings. This does not sit well with her father, and he makes no secret of hiding his feelings towards her. He expects her to be more like her mother, who had previously passed away. It is evident that Dr. Sloper is still grief stricken by the loss of his wife and still in love with her.

         The film also convinces the audience that Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) may actually be in love with Catherine and not just her money. He gives her attention, talks to her, and thinks she is interesting, unlike her father. This attention from a man makes Catherine’s character open up and become more likable to the audience. The film also encourages the audience to dislike Morris Townsend when he treats Catherine wrong by leaving town the night they were to elope, by proving to them that he is only after Catherine’s inheritance.

         The film does a superior job of portraying Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). She is just as I had pictured her from the novel. In both, she was always in Catherine’s business, trying to get Catherine and Morris together. She even conspired with Morris in a plan to get Catherine to elope with him. In the film, Aunt Lavinia did a good job of attempting to convince Dr. Sloper that Catherine and Morris should be married.

         The film differed from the novel in a few ways, which I think made the film more interesting than the novel. In the film, Catherine challenges her father to change his will before he dies, but he does not. This made me think that Dr. Sloper had some faith that his daughter had enough sense to make a good decision about whether to marry Morris or not. In the film, Catherine is angry enough at him to refuse to see her father on his deathbed. I thought this was appropriate behavior for the character because of how he had treated his daughter throughout the film. One other difference the film made from the novel is that at the end of the film, Catherine is clever enough to devise a plan to avenge herself on Morris. She pretends she wants to elope as they had originally planned. When he returns later, she orders the maid to bolt the door, leaving Morris outside, shouting her name. I felt that this performance was suitable for Catherine’s character at this time in the film because she had been treated poorly for so long. This action showed the audience that she finally figured out how to stand up for herself and stop being treated terrible by the men in her life.

         In conclusion, both the novel and film were good, but the film brought the storyline and characters to life. Plus, the small changes in some details made the film more interesting.

Nichole Walker