Book into Film – “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)

For a start the book – a novella really, scarcely topping the 100-page mark – by Truman Capote was set during the Second World War. And the book’s narrator Paul (George Peppard in the film) is more of an observer in the vein of in Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and as such is not privy to every action of Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) rather than, say, the redoubtable Dr Watson  who, as confidante of Sherlock Holmes, can faithfully record his every action.  

So the first task set screenwriter George Axelrod was to update the picture to the contemporary era of the early 1960s. Fashion-wise, this proves a tremendous boon, allowing the director the give Holly her iconic look. And it does permit more leeway with acceptable sexual mores. However, while in both book and film Paul is an aspiring writer, in the book he is initially unpublished, while in the film he has had a book of short stories published, but is living as a gigolo. In the book he is an innocent 19-year-old, mouth clearly agape at Holly’s shenanigans, while in the film he is clearly more mature.

Since Hollywood is intent on providing a happy ending, it was essential for the screenplay to make Paul an acceptable suitor rather than a young swain largely in awe of the captivating Holly.

Axelrod did not have to do much to capture the book’s Holly. In fact, he appropriated wholesale chunks of dialogue. Capote had done such a wonderful job of describing her unique personality that it made a lot of sense to retain her vocabulary and diction.

Axelrod turns Paul into a more dramatic figure, such that he is able to both challenge himself and Holly, emerge from his own self-destructive trap, and develop his own narrative arc, and play a more significant role in Holly’s life, so that the romantic possibilities, which appear distant in the book, can be more easily realized.

The input of other characters is enlarged or diminished. The Japanese neighbor Mr  Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney), who only appears at the beginning of the book, is called into more extensive comedic duties by the screenwriter. Mag Wildwood (Dorothy Witney), only seen in passing in the film, has a more significant role in the book, becoming for a time Holly’s flatmate and rival in love. There is no room in the film for Madame Spanella, held responsible in the book for informing the police about Holly’s arrangement with the gangster. For structural reasons, Axelrod is also able to dispense with bar owner Mr Bell, a pivotal character at the book’s opening.

Otherwise, the book acts as a pretty useful treatment, from which the screenwriter need only occasionally depart. Sometimes this is for clarification. In the film Holly insists her marriage to Doc was annulled whereas in the book this is far from clear, leaving her open to charges of bigamy. Axelrod turns into dialogue some of Paul’s observations and turns some dialogue into scenes. In addition, in the book Holly becomes pregnant by her Brazilian lover, thus expecting marriage to automatically follow.

The couple do steal masks from a dime store, but do not visit Tiffany’s together to have the cheap ring inscribed, but the scene has its origins elsewhere in the book. Nor does Paul in the book introduce Holly to the public library and though he finds evidence of her mugging up on South America it is only in the film that that becomes a scene.

The book avoids the happy ending Hollywood was so desperate to reach. Holly goes off on her own. The cat is chucked out of the cab and although a remorseful Holly immediately chases after it, she is too late.

The notion that a creature as wild and individual as Holly Golightly would submit to marriage to an impoverished writer seems a fantasy too far. Unhappy endings were not unknown in Hollywood, look at Casablanca, but for whatever reason Paramount or Blake Edwards dictated otherwise.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) **** – Back on the Big Screen

Reassessment sixty years on – and on the big screen, too – presents a darker picture bursting to escape the confines of Hollywood gloss. Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is one of the most iconic characters ever to hit the screen. Her little black dress, hats, English drawl and elongated cigarette holder often get in the way of accepting the character within, the former hillbilly wild child who refuses to be owned or caged, her demand for independence constrained by her desire to marry into wealth for the supposed freedom that will bring, contradictory demands which clearly place a strain on her mental health.

Although only hinted at then, and more obvious now, she is willing to sell her body in a bid to save her soul. Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a gigolo, being kept, in some style I should add with a walk-in wardrobe full of suits, by wealthy married Emily (Patricia Neal), is her male equivalent, a published author whose promise does not pay the bills. The constructs both have created to hide from the realities of life are soon exposed.

There is much to adore here, not least Golightly’s ravishing outfits, her kookiness and endearing haplessness faced with an ordinary chore such as cooking. the central section, where the couple try to buy something at Tiffanys on a budget of $10, introduce Holly to the New York public library and boost items from a dime store, fits neatly into the rom-com tradition.

Golightly’s income, which she can scarcely manage given her extravagant fashion expenditure, depends on a weekly $100 for delivering coded messages to gangster Sally in Sing Sing prison, and taking $50 for powder room expenses from every male who takes her out to dinner, not to mention the various sundries for which her wide range of companions will foot the bill.

Her sophisticated veneer fails to convince those whom she most needs to convince. Agent O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam) recognizes her as a phoney while potential marriage targets like Rusty Trawler (Stanley Adams) and Jose (Jose da Silva Pereira) either look elsewhere or fear the danger of association.

The appearance of former husband Doc (Buddy Ebsen) casts light on a grim past, married at fourteen, expected to look after an existing family and her brother, and underscores the legend of her transformation. But the “mean reds” from which she suffers seem like ongoing depression, as life stubbornly refuses to conform to her dreams. Her inability to adopt to normality is dressed up as an early form of feminism, independence at its core, at a time when the vast bulk of women were dependent on men for financial and emotional security. Her strategy to gain such independence is dependent on duping independent unsuitable men into funding her lifestyle.  

Of course, you could not get away in those days with a film that concentrated on the coarser elements of her existence and few moviegoers would queue up for such a cinematic experience so it is a tribute to the skill of director Blake Edwards (Operation Petticoat, 1959), at that time primarily known for comedy, to find a way into the Truman Capote bestseller, adapted for the screen by George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch, 1955),  that does not compromise the material just to impose Hollywood confection. In other hands, the darker aspects of her relationships might have been completely extinguished in the pursuit of a fabulous character who wears fabulous clothes.

Audrey Hepburn is sensational in the role, truly captivating, endearing and fragile in equal measure, an extrovert suffering from self-doubt, but with manipulation a specialty, her inspired quirks lighting up the screen as much as the Givenchy little black dress. It’s her pivotal role of the decade, her characters thereafter splitting into the two sides of her Golightly persona, kooks with a bent for fashion, or conflicted women dealing with inner turmoil.

It’s a shame to say that, in making his movie debut, George Peppard probably pulled off his best-ever performance, before he succumbed to the surliness that often appeared core to his later acting. And there were some fine cameos. Buddy Ebsen revived his career and went on to become a television icon in The Beverley Hillbillies. The same held true for Patricia Neal in her first film in four years, paving the way for an Oscar-winning turn in Hud (1963). Martin Balsam (Psycho, 1960) produced another memorable character while John McGiver (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) possibly stole the show among the supporting cast with his turn as the Tiffany’s salesman.

On the downside, however, was the racist slant. Never mind that Mickey Rooney was a terrible choice to play a Japanese neighbor, his performance was an insult to the Japanese, the worst kind of stereotype.

The other plus of course was the theme song, “Moon River,” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, which has become a classic, and in the film representing the wistful yearning elements of her character.

CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: This is a restoration of the classic. The Showcase chain is showing it all this week in various cinemas throughout the United Kingdom (I caught it last week at my local Showcase). It is also showing in Barcelona on July 26; Amsterdam on July 31-August 3; Stockholm on August 5; and Gent, Belgium, on August 6.

A company called Park Circus – which has offices in London, Paris, Los Angeles and Glasgow – has the rights to the reissue and if you want to find out if the picture will be showing in your neck of the woods at a later date you can contact them on info@parkcircus.com