‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’: Page vs. Screen

Before average, urban, single women were dreaming of taking on life with a cosmo in hand and Manolo-clad feet, they were coveting a life of oversized sunglasses and profitable trips to the powder room. Fabulous, single icons have been few and far between, but it is without question that Holly Golightly is the icon against which all others are measured. Whether on the page or on the screen, Holly is the embodiment of the charming, elusive woman every single girl imagines herself to be. From book to film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote, 1958 and Blake Edwards, 1961) takes a radical turn, but what’s interesting is that Holly herself (played by Audrey Hepburn in the film) is unchanged. Instead, it is the situations she faces, and the way in which her story is told, that create two wildly different stories about one very interesting woman.

Holly Golightly, in either variation, is an odd choice for an icon. She is, as her agent proclaims, “nuts”. She is delusional, insecure and yet somehow equally naïve and cunning. She has lived a tragic life that has left her a broken person, but she has managed to dress up this damage and make it aspirational. Every person who has lived has experienced some form of pain, so it is easy to understand how one could see Holly as someone to admire, but I firmly believe that if Breakfast at Tiffany’s had never ventured from the page, Holly would have been just another exceptional, but forgotten character.

Here, book and movie rely so heavily on one another, that it is difficult to determine which is served more.

The premises of the two forms are identical, as are most of the events that occur. In each there is a lonely young writer (unnamed in the book, and ‘Paul’, played by George Peppard, in the film) who stumbles into a friendship with a charming young woman of questionable morality, who lives downstairs. He learns of her dubious activities: carrying weather reports for a convicted mobster, taking $50 trips to the powder room, and stealing away the future president of Brazil from her friend. Through this path our narrator also comes across the likeable Doc Golightly and learns of Holly’s true past as Lulamae Barnes. Additionally, in both versions Holly’s teetering life finally comes crumbling down with help from a poorly-timed telegraph and an even more poorly-timed arrest.

Cat in tow, our unlikely heroine takes off to flee the country and her problems, because she is an independent — and a stray — who belongs to no one. As such, she abandons her cat in the rain and drives on, both of them out to find someone and somewhere that they can truly call home. She, of course, has a change of heart, turning back and searching for the cat, realizing that it does belong to her; that people can belong to one another and that maybe she’s been wrong all along. And it is here, at the ending, where the book and the movie differ. In the film, the cat is found and Holly’s revelation is met by a passionate kiss from Paul, the man who has always loved her, who she can finally love back, now that she understands what love and commitment are. Roll credits, tear, tear. But in the book, the cat is gone forever and Holly is left to wonder whether she’s doomed to never know what belonged to her until after it is gone: an epiphany that is only met with compassion from our nameless narrator.

This change in outcome is forced by the fact that the largest difference from page to screen is the sexual orientation of our storyteller. When the film was produced, it would have been as unfathomable to have a gay lead character as it would have been to end the movie without a happily-ever-after kiss. In both versions he is in love with Holly, yet with the unromantic love in the book, he is able to let her go, which is clearly the more realistic ending of the two.

There are other, often-touted differences, such as the book taking place in the stark, wartime ’40s while the movie is set in the swinging ’60s. The book is also certainly blunter about Holly’s profession than the film, which merely suggests what those rich men hanging-about obviously implies; but these are less significant in my opinion.

Changing the ending is, in effect, changing Holly. It is saying that for all her resisting and pretending, deep down she was simply a woman searching for love and for a man who could tame her. It is the same issue I take with the finale of the TV series Sex and the City (1998-2004), which sees each of the women neatly tucked away into marriages and serious relationships after six years of nonstop talk about independence and the unnecessary nature of men. For me, it is much easier to picture Holly Golightly running around Africa than to picture her sharing a home with a husband and cat. By taking a complex and distinct character and forcefully domesticating her, the film perpetuates the fairy tale ideal that all women need to be rescued, and, as any average, urban, single woman will tell you: that simply isn’t true.

Now that isn’t to say that the film isn’t an undeniable classic. It is. There is a reason that Audrey Hepburn’s bespectacled face is emblazoned on everything from tote bags to t-shirts, and it has very little to do with women wanting to be rescued. The magic of Truman Capote’s words in creating the glittering, beautiful world that revolves around Miss Golightly is nothing compared to the magic that Blake Edwards captured on film. As I said, Holly Golightly is one of the most complex, fascinating characters of the 20th century, and seeing her in all her Givenchy-clad glory is enough, no reading is required. And yet, perhaps, it is.

The way I came across these two pieces of entertainment is the way, I assume, that most people do. I watched the movie because it is deemed a classic and seems “required viewing” for any girl over 13, and I fell in love with it. This led to reading the book, and I subsequently fell in love with that too, and somehow even more in love with the movie. The movie is like a first introduction to a person you know you’re going to like, while the book lets you get to know the person more before proving your first impression right.

I can watch the movie and pretend it is the book. It isn’t hard, as most of the dialogue came straight from Capote, and many of the situations too. I can imagine the “a kiss is just a kiss” goodbye and Holly going off to woo the fifty richest men in Brazil, or, I can watch it and tearfully accept that they will live happily ever after. And I can read the book and appreciate an ending that doesn’t shy away from reality, while also imagining Audrey Hepburn in every scene.

I can do this because, while they are so eerily similar, they are equally dissimilar in such a way that I can easily separate them in a manner not feasible for most adaptations. They are both so beautifully crafted and executed that it is impossible to say which is the better. Instead of competing, they complement each other well and truly, experiencing only one is not enough. They are both classics and both deserve to be viewed and read by everyone. It may be easier to accept the film if viewed before reading the book, but I don’t think that will be a problem for most.