Transforming Washington Square

        Henry James’s 1880 Washington Square was a book with extreme characters and a lackluster storyline. The Heiress is the 1948 play, which was based on Washington Square and written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The play, filmed in 1949 by William Wyler, transformed the characters into genuine people and made the storyline lively and believable.

        The characters in Washington Square went from one extreme to the next, and they were not very convincing. Dr. Sloper was an absolutely horrible father, who cared nothing for his only daughter, Catherine. Catherine came off as being incapable of thinking or speaking for herself even though she went to the best schools. Morris seemed like a lazy, self-centered, gold digger, who knew how to charm his way through life. Then, there was Aunt Penniman, who tried to live vicariously through Catherine and Morris. She was also very two-faced when it came to her family and Morris.

        All of these characters are extreme and not relatable. The storyline feeds off the characters, and as a result the story seems slow and dull. It makes Catherine out to be a rich, naïve girl, who falls in love with a mercenary. Her father, who views her as slow and not charming, must step in and “protect” his daughter and his fortune. Working behind the scenes, to reverse everything the Doctor did, was Aunt Penniman. She is a romantic and sees Morris not only benefitting Catherine, but herself.

        In The Heiress, the characters are transformed into real people that the audience can relate to. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is portrayed as a concerned father who still mourns the loss of his wife. Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) actually seems intelligent and even develops a "backbone" towards the end. The play and movie also show Catherine as being quick witted around her Aunt (Miriam Hopkins) but simply nervous when others are around. Morris (Montgomery Clift) becomes more in love with Catherine instead of her fortune only. Aunt Penniman seems to really want Catherine to find love and happiness. She also tends to view Morris as a genuine friend and companion instead of a replacement for the void her husband’s death left her with.

        With better character portrayals, a more entertaining storyline develops. Catherine, a shy but kind girl falls in love with the first man who has truly shown her affection. Dr. Sloper is partly to blame for this since he is constantly putting Catherine down for not being more like her Mother. Morris wants to better himself and his life but at the same time be a good husband to Catherine. Aunt Penniman wants her niece to find love and happiness as she had, even if her father does not. Catherine does get even in the end by standing up Morris, as he did to her years earlier.

        When characters are extreme the storyline tends to be obvious and therefore makes for a mind numbing read. However, if those same characters are transformed into convincing ones, the whole story will change for the good and become an instant page-turner and memorable movie experience.

Kelly Kneer