Reconstructing Henry James: The Heiress (1949)

By Raw, Laurence | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Henry James: The Heiress (1949)


Raw, Laurence, Literature/Film Quarterly


The presumed difficulty of adapting Henry James for the screen has preoccupied many recent critics. Susie Gibson suggests that the directors of many recent adaptations, including Washington Square (1997), have concentrated on "the irrelevant yet somehow compulsory history scene" at the expense of "narrative concentration" (Gibson 47). Philip Home rejects the idea that a Henry James film should be faithful to the book, arguing that "extreme closeness to portions of the original [text] may be dangerous unless really thought through" (16). In a brochure introducing a season of Henry James films and television productions at the National Film Theatre in London, it was suggested that "[rather than] a feature film ... perhaps it is often the more leisurely pace of the classic television serial which is better able to give a more faithful approximation to the dense and finely judged prose of the master" (1).

The notions of being "faithful" to the original text, or approximating James's prose seem somewhat tenuous: if a long novel is being adapted, ruthless cuts and selections are almost inevitable. Filmmakers need a radical interpretation and a structure of their own to retain direction, shape, or dynamics. The result must stand as a work in its own right as a reconstruction of James's work for a different medium.

This paper will seek to illustrate this process through an analysis of William Wyler's The Heiress (Paramount, 1949). The main focus will not be on fidelity to the original text (Washington Square), or communicating the author's intention (whatever that might be) to the audience, but rather on issues that influenced the film's screenplay, casting, and visual style. 1 I shall not discuss the screenplay in detail, but rather focus on how its construction was influenced by two factors: the critical reputation of Henry James and Washington Square at the time when the film was made; and the fact that the film was based on a successful Broadway (and subsequently West End) adaptation. I also want to show how the screenplay restored elements of Henry James's novel. which were omitted from the adaptation. In looking at the casting of the film, Wyler was as much concerned with repeating the commercial and artistic success of The Little Foxes (1941) as he was with remaining truthful to Henry James. This also determined the way in which the film was designed: as his fellow film-director Tay Garnett recalled, Wyler took meticulous care over the mise-en-scene in his films, in order to provide "a motion picture that would appeal to a large percentage of the movie-going public" (299).

James himself was not fond of Washington Square; in his letters, he dismissed it as a "slender tale, of rather too narrow an interest. I don't, honest:ly, take much stock in it" (Edel 308). By the mid-twentieth century however, the reputation of the book and its author had undergone a critical renaissance, both in academic and journalistic circles. In the 1930s, he was frequently represented as an artist who "wished to defy . . . the vulgar and the provincial, by being an artist and a cosmopolite, [and thus] had to take his material [to Europe] where it was most amenable to the treatment he could give it" (Leighton 25). By the next decade, critical attention focused more directly upon James's artistry: in 1948, R.P. Blackmur praised his ability "to bring himself directly upon the emotion that lay under the conventions [of a society], coiling and recoiling, ready to break through" (92). F.O. Matthiessen was a crucial figure in reshaping the discussion on James. He edited and provided introduclions to two collections - Henry James: Stories of Writers and Artists (1944) and The American Novels and Stories of Henry James (1947). His most influential work was Henry James: The Major Phase (1944), which aimed to correct the view of "the wider public" that since James spent most of his life abroad, he could not understand "the American consciousness" (ix-x). …

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