It’s been 56 years since Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) first graced our screens and it was undoubtedly different from the 1958 novella upon which it is based. Both the Hollywood audience as well as dominant sociological ideals (critically the assumptions made about gender and sexuality) contributed to the changes made during the adaptation process. “A film adaptation creates a new story; it is not the same as the original, nor should it be considered as such” and I will NOT be comparing these two in a “which one is better” way but more hope to examine the differences in an effort to celebrate both.
I have such a big love for this story in every way it is told – not out of any high-brow literary significance (though arguably both have their places in history) but out of pure, unmarred, enjoyment. Audrey was such a beautiful and talented woman and, frankly, I enjoy every film I’ve ever seen her in and Capote is a particular favourite author of mine too so it’s no surprise I’m a fan of both editions. Here’s a quick summary of some differences between the two.
Though some of these differences can be explained easily by way of context it’s important to remember they affect the overall message of each story; giving them both very different overall meanings. (Though both are kinda perfect anyway, in their own way. ) Some more noticeable differences can be seen between individual character traits and changes to these are what really makes all the difference.
Everything about the on-screen Holly is iconic and she’s got quite a classy image these days, but she wasn’t always perceived that way. Though both versions are beguiling and a little quirky, one is certainly more raw and rough cut than the other sparkling Tiffany diamond.
Holly’s character in the book was a lot more risque than the Spirited lady we see climbing down the fire escape in the film. Capote’s original choice for Holly (Marilyn Monroe) allegedly turned down the role after concerns were raised that it would damage her image (although other sources argue Hepburn was just a better fit for the role). What riled people at the time was Holly’s clear bi-sexuality and the liberated nature in which she behaved. In the re-writing it seems all and any homosexuality was completely off limits – it’s crazy to think how far we’ve come in such a short time. In the book Holly tells us “people couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am.Everyone is: a bit. So what? That never discouraged a man yet, in fact it seems to goad them on”, a comment I found both surprising and unwittingly refreshing to read. It really is a pity this version of Holly wasn’t fully realised on screen. (Not that I don’t love Hepburn’s style.)
Despite the reductions made to some of her character traits she still maintains a unique perspective on the world with much of her trademark sass. In a nice tribute to Capote’s Holly, little aspects like her french phrases and wit carry flawlessly from page to screen.
She also doesn’t come across as completely helpless despite the romantic ending, she continues to assert “I’m not gonna let anyone put me in a cage” leaving the narrator seeming (at least a little bit) vulnerable before the closing scenes. There still lingers a note of female freedom but it’s much less overt than it’s first incarnation.
In the book this complex character is not a sex worker (though he is presented this way in the film.) In fact, the whole ‘ this is my decorator, I’m definitely not sleeping with her for her money (except I totally am)’ debacle seems to spring completely out of nowhere, the female character ‘2E’, who supports Paul’s writing career, doesn’t exist at all in Capote’s novella.
That aside our narrator character on-screen still features a few more notably different characteristics to his counterpart between the pages. Like Holly, his sexuality is clearly closeted and his on-screen version is presented in a hetero-normative way, even going so far as to make him the main love interest of the story itself despite previously having been more of a spectator. On paper his love for her is not defined in a sexual way and it reads as if he was more in awe of her than anything else. He always insinuated that her life was so different from his own.
So we have established that our main characters had a few things in common in the novella, most notably their sexual liberation and independence.
George Axelrod allegedly said of his screenwriting adaptation process “what we had to do was devise a story, get a central romantic relationship, and make the hero a red-blooded heterosexual” and so he did. Film is a huge industry and everyone surely knows that ‘sex sells’ but of course only heavily censored heterosexual love is acceptable enough to please us all; at least, that’s how it was back then. Censors played a huge part on the narrative and working around them was a difficult task. The casting of innocent and fabulous Hepburn helped to deflect attention away from her character’s occupation and her eventual submission to the security of a heterosexual relationship worked to “redeem” her for it later on.
I mean, Hollywood in the 1960s doesn’t need a huge introduction. It was the dominant ‘it’ thing – it was the be-all and end-all of entertainment
in the US and, like many beings with extraordinary powers, they didn’t always use them for good. Or perhaps, what we perceive to be ‘good’ now. The film was very much a product of its time and the prescriptive nature of Hollywood culture over this period of second wave feminism means that some things were lost in the translation from page to screen. The subtle intertwining of power and vulnerability Capote gives Holly in the novel is somewhat stifled by the movie’s hollywood ending; it is an ending in which the wretched street girl is saved by the man – typical Hollywood – and in fact, the narrator actually says “you belong to me.” It’s still a very sweet story and definitely one I’ll continue to enjoy but (In light of Capote’s novella) it’s clear the film missed an opportunity to be both progressive and poignant for its time.
As vague a sub heading as that is I do feel that sexuality (and the dynamic between Holly and ‘Fred’) are the most distinctive changes to have occurred over the adaptation process and are the main reason for such varied texts. All that leaves are the smaller, albeit just as important, details.
For instance the character of I.Y. Yunioshi is one that really needs some comment. The racial implications in both texts are pretty fiery but with the book being set in the 40s some slurs can be (at the very least) understood in context. The much later film with the almost cartoonish behaviour from Mickey Rooney is pretty cringe-worthy under today’s standards. The blatant whitewashing had since been acknowledged by the team behind it as a toxic caricature and hopefully is something we won’t see again. Aside from that, Mag Wildwood features much less in the film than in the book and seems a little marginalised. Though not imperative to the story it does affect how audiences perceive the relationship between the two of them. Another character we don’t really see is Joe Bell, the bartender with whom our narrator reminisces about Holly. The storyteller style is lost a bit because of his absence but in some ways he was more of a frame for Holly’s story – the film puts all of its focus on her.
Borne of an iconic image Holly is constantly re-imagined. Both Anna Friel and Emila Clarke have taken to the stage to embody Miss Golightly but the most recent attempt (or attempt I’ve seen) was in 2016 by Richard Greenberg with Pixie Lott as Holly. It was great to see the version of events from the book played out in front of me and whilst, for me, Lott didn’t capture everything it meant to be the Holly Golightly (Hepburn’s shoes are rightly very difficult to fill) it seems right that Holly should be a character who is re-painted over and over again. It’s a tapestry that develops over time with different subtleties of character put forward by each attempt. I think a lot of Capote’s message lingers in that notion, that a little bit of a ‘wild thing’ exists in each of us, one way or another.
Do you prefer one over the other? Or have anything to add to the comparison? Let me know in the comments below.
– Catherine Moore, Travelling –