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Breakfast at Tiffany's: Check, Please

I hate it when a film takes a brilliant literary work and turns it into what it thinks the literary work should be.

Breakfast At Tiffany's

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Subtitle: A Novel & Three Stories
Author: Truman Capote
Price: $12.95
Length: 178
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780679745655
US publication date: 1995-03

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Paramount Centennial Collection

Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Martin Balsam, Mickey Rooney
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1961
US DVD Release Date: 2009-01-13

There’s a scene in Truman Capote’s classic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s that sums up how I feel about the movie adaptation of the book. The narrator of the story, “Fred”, is having an argument with lead character, Holly Golightly about literature because he thinks she can’t appreciate it. He’s asks her to give him an example of a literary work that means something to her. When her answer turns out to be Wuthering Heights, he is outraged.

“But that’s unreasonable,” he says. “You’re talking about a work of genius.”

“It was, wasn’t it? My wild sweet Cathy. God, I cried buckets. I saw it ten times,” she says.

“Oh,” Fred says. “The movie.”

When I started reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, my friend warned me that the movie was a cheap imitation of Capote’s novella. I tried not to let her judgment cloud mine, but even before I saw the movie, I kept wondering how Capote’s bawdy character of Holly Golightly could be portrayed by demure, sophisticated Audrey Hepburn.

I tried my best to leave my bias against the celebrated film behind, but by the time I got to the part in the movie where the narrator’s character is tall, handsome “Paul” (played by George Peppard), I couldn’t help but feel cheated.

Capote’s classic tale follows Holly Golightly -- a fashionable New York party girl with a secret past. The story is told by an unnamed narrator nicknamed “Fred” after he befriends Golightly when he moves into her apartment building.

He begins frequenting her disheveled apartment and listening to her stories about her job as a “powder room girl” and companion to Sally Tomato, a mobster in prison. It quickly becomes clear that Golightly is a call girl and gold digger.

Meanwhile, the narrator is a struggling writer who falls out with Holly after she snubs his writing and fails to share his enthusiasm when he gets his first piece published. You can’t help but imagine Capote himself as the character in the book. He’s described not only as a writer, but you quickly get the sense that he and Golightly have a platonic gay male/ straight female friendship.

To make a long story short, after patching things up with Fred and running into a series of surprising and scandalous encounters, Golightly packs up and runs off to Brazil, never to be heard from again.

The movie, directed by Blake Edwards, is a “Hollywoodized” version of the original work. Edward’s Golightly, who is played by Audrey Hepburn, is a much more tame, G-rated version of Capote’s brash, foul-mouthed Golightly.

It’s said that Capote wasn’t happy with Hepburn cast as his muse. In fact, he wanted good friend Marylin Monroe to be his leading lady. One of my main problems with Hepburn as Golightly is her voice. She practically sings the lines of Capote’s prose whereas in the book you can almost hear Golightly’s slapdash voice delivering lines like, “Stories about dykes bore the bejesus out of me.”

I’ve never seen any edge or grit to Audrey Hepburn, and she certainly doesn’t bring it to Golightly’s character. While I think Monroe would embody a saucier Golightly, I think she may have also been the wrong choice because her voice tends to be just as sing-songy and I think she lacks the edge Golightly possesses.

Another major casting mistake, in my eyes, is that the narrator is tall, good-looking George Peppard. In the film, he isn’t the struggling writer fascinated by Golightly’s antics, but a published author and kept man who falls in love with her. The story is no longer about a friendship between a gay writer and independent party girl, but a sentimental love story about a man who wants to tame a restless woman.

The struggle at the heart of the book -- the tension between the need for stability and the desire for freedom – is spoiled in the film. In the book, Fred, is happy to have found a place to call home while Holly is in a state of constant unrest. She is fond of changing her identity, moving, and creating new personas. Early on, Holly says about her unnamed cat:

“Poor slop without a name. it’s a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven’t any right to give him one: he’ll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s independent, and so am I.”

At the end of the story, before she flees for Brazil, she lets the cat go in the city. After having a change of heart, she looks for the cat but doesn’t find him. Fred promises her that he’ll look for him and take care of him after she leaves. When he finds the cat at the end of the book, fat and happy “flanked by potted plants and framed by clean lace curtains” he thinks to himself, “I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he’d arrived somewhere he belonged ... I hope Holly has, too.”

The movie took the scene and tied it up neatly with a gold lame’ Hollywood ribbon. The film shows Hepburn fleeing the cab to look for the cat with Paul chasing after her. When she finds the cat, Paul grabs Golightly and they have a happily-ever-after kiss. It’s clear she’ll stay and make her home with him. Soon after, the credits roll.

I hate it when a film takes a brilliant literary work and turns it into what it thinks the literary work should be. The book is not a romance at all, but a look at a friendship between a writer and a free spirit who shuns any ties, even with the animal world. Unfortunately, Golightly couldn’t outrun the cameras as well.

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