The Heiress Was Adapted from Washington Square?

         The 1949 film The Heiress, based on the 1880 Henry James novel Washington Square, is the dominating rendition of this story. William Wyler's adaptation of the theatrical production of the same title, adapted in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, encapsulated what James may have wanted the reader to experience by reading the novel. The film was an absolute joy to watch; however its literary counterpart was almost to the point of unbearable to read.

        One begins this book with little question of its pedigree. Henry James has written many well received novels and short stories in his life, including the 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw. However, even venturing a few chapters into the story makes one want to set it down and truly try to digest what was just said, without much flavor. The characters are flat and forgettable, and the story seems to be lack luster. However, since the play is derived from the novel, one has to determine by logic that this story and the characters lies within the pages of the novel. This comes as a great surprise, being as the vessel of the story was Washington Square. The play is a definite refinement of something that exists in the realm of mediocrity.

        The film was based upon the play and was amazingly well done. Watching this movie was figuratively a breath of fresh air that would fit in any movie junkie's repertoire. William Wyler was set free to do as he please with this movie, unlike the case with one of his previous ventures, the 1939 Wuthering Heighst. This freedom is really shown in the cinematography and the movement through the story. The characters, especially Catherine, Morris, and Dr. Sloper are brought to life by Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson, in such an amazing way. They were easy to relate to and had a dimension of realism that was transparent in the novel.

        If one is given the choice to read the book and forget ever seeing the film, or seeing the film and never reading the book, the film wins out hands down. All the facets of what James wanted to be seen to the reader are extrapolated and intensified in the film, so much so it overshadows the book -- no offense to Henry James, of course.

Joseph Chad Bowlin