It is obvious that most films that evolve from books rarely keep the same pacing and subtlety as the books they derived from, mainly for dramatic purposes. Usually these changes are either drastically for the better or the worse. In the case of The Heiress, the 1949 film version of Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, the movie, directed by William Wyler, remained mostly consistent with the book. The most evident change was in the ending personality of the main character, Catherine. I must say this is one of the few times that I have ever liked both a movie's interpretation of a book and the book itself.
I cannot decide which Catherine I like more, the gentle, forgiving yet firm Catherine of Washington Square or the spiteful Catherine of The Heiress. Although, Catherine's ending persona is quite different the in movie, both are likeable.
Catherine in Washington Square, may not have been the most charismatic person, at least not in the eyes of Dr. Sloper, but she is an all-around good person. She seems loyal, gentle and most of all strong. I realize that she is really a much stronger person than her father thinks. She has constantly put up with his venomous sarcasm with a turn of the cheek, and she has endured the pain of losing Morris without really showing her misery or even making a scene. Overall, Catherine has had traits that most parents would have adored.
Catherine in The Heiress, as portrayed by Olivia de Havilland, is pretty spiteful towards both her father (Ralph Richardson) and Morris (Montgomery Clift). She is more embittered, yet her character is much more intriguing. She is not going to let her father have his way; even when he is dying, she refuses to go to his bedside. This reaction to her father's death is a foreshadowing of the edge Catherine has gained.
The biggest difference between the book and film and the character of Catherine is the ending. In Washington Square, Catherine simply lets Morris know that she is over him and has no interest in forming any type of relationship with him ever again. She is very poised and respectable, which is a huge contrast with the cunning Catherine in the movie.
I really found myself admiring Catherine as she lets Morris go at the end of Washington Square; but something about watching Catherine in The Heiress, stride triumphantly up the stairs as Morris desperately beats on the door, made me want to get up and clap. Although, the book's ending may have been somewhat more of a respectable reaction, the movie's ending was fiery. The one line that I felt backed up her reactions comes when her aunt, Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins), asks her how she could be so cruel; and she coolly replies: "I have been taught by masters."