Washington Square, written in 1880 by Henry James, is the longest "short novel." Although it is an interesting story, the way it is written makes the characters seem dull and/or annoying. Each character has a specific flaw and no redeeming qualities. How is a reader supposed to connect with characters that seem cold, conniving, or in Catherine Sloper's case, just dull?
In the film The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler, the actors, director and screenwriter work together to recreate the characters of Washington Square into more acceptable and connectable characters. The main way they achieve a connection to the audience is the incorporation of humor. The short novel lacks humor because it emphasizes the plot of victim turned to power holder. The humor of the film does not take away from the plot but merely makes the storyline easier to follow because the audience connects easier to the characters.
At first reading of Washington Square, one gets the impression that Aunt Penniman is an annoying character trying to stir up some drama for her own entertainment. The film version of the character, as portrayed by Mirian Hopkins, is more open and friendly towards Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). She is less intrusive so the audience sees her as a helpful aunt rather than an old woman who has nothing to do but pry into others affairs. The film uses humorous dialogue and mannerisms for Aunt Penniman, so the audience is less likely to be annoyed and more likely to enjoy her on-screen.
Morris, in the book, is clearly a jerk because he uses his good looks and charms to get Catherine's fortune. In the movie Montgomery Clift, a charming and good-looking man, is less like a jerk and more of a sad puppy willing to change. The audience connects with him because, reading Morris' character, one can immediately see through him; but actually watching him use his charm (in a humorous manner) makes us fall in love with his attempts. His charm sometimes comes off humorously because he looks like a nervous schoolboy when he is talking to Catherine or Aunt Penniman.
Perhaps the character that benefits the most from the incorporation of humor in the film is Catherine. In the book she comes off dull and then all of a sudden cold. In the movie Catherine comes off humorous while playing dull, such as her actions of leaning away when Morris leans towards her. The audience better connects to this, rather than seeing her as a dumb girl; she invokes pity and compassion because she is a woman coming nder fire of strong charm.
The humor of The Heiress makes the characters more intriguing and gives the audience a better connection to them. With this connection audiences can better understand the story, and find the characters' strife endearing rather than a dull soap opera.