‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’: from Novella to Screen

Truman Capote’s novella was published in 1958. The setting is 1940’s New York City. Social currents have flowed by, and reading the book now in 2021 makes it interesting to compare back to the era when Capote wrote. Some might feel the currents fast changing, some would lament at the slow pace when women and people from a different cultural background still strive for equal standing in our society today.

WWII is the background and Capote’s handling of a Japanese character is relatively gracious, for he never uses negative descriptions about his appearance; Mr. Yunioshi only shouts when irritated.

While the novella reflects the social culture and values of the time, what’s seemingly timeless is the iconic character, Holly Golightly, a café society gal of just around nineteen who has left indelible marks in the hearts of many men. Holly is a tough gal in a man’s world, and shows she has the iron will of doing things on her own terms; although sadly, she depends on men for her livelihood.

The unnamed narrator of the novella probably knows Holly best among all her numerous society acquaintances. He is a writer and her upstairs neighbour in the NYC East Seventies brownstone. The gal is a walking contradiction. He’s intrigued at first, in love––albeit unrequitedly––towards the end. Here’s how Capote describes his enigmatic yet mesmerizing protagonist Holly Golightly:

She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains paradox… the trick had been worked by exaggerating defects; she’d made them ornamental by admitting them boldly. Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter; for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling. (44)

But it’s not merely her appearance that pulls at the heartstrings of the narrator’s, it’s what’s hidden. She’d clam up just the moment when you think she’s ready for ‘volunteering intimate information’. She doesn’t know what she wants, “when I find out you’ll be the first to know.” She avoids the zoo, ‘couldn’t bear to see anything in a cage,’ yet she’s always looking for a place she can call home. Once she finds it, she’ll give her cat a name. Her card says it all: Miss Holly Golightly, Traveling.

Tolkien had famously said, ‘not all those who wander are lost.’ Here’s a case of one who wanders and is lost yet enjoys it immensely.

Is she for real, or a phony? To be exact, she’s been called a real phony… that is, she believes in her own makeover of herself. Capote reveals Holly’s past history in a poignant way. Best to savour his storytelling first hand. But Holly, whoever she is now, will remain so and go on her diverting life path. The past is exactly where she has left it. At the story’s end, the narrator reminisces with bar owner Joe Bell whom he and Holly used to patronize. Both men know Holly will continue with her ‘travelling’––this time all the way to Brazil––and lament her leaving them behind with mere elusive memories.

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Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) looking into the window at Tiffany’s

Directed by Blake Edwards and screenplay by George Axelrod, Capote’s novella is transposed on screen in 1961 as a romantic comedy, a launching pad for a career takeoff for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. Capote’s intended female for the role was Marilyn Monroe. Apparently the filmmakers had an eye for the right one. In the movie, Hepburn is an almost exact fit corresponding to Capote’s descriptions, better yet, more mature and alluring, and the stutter replaced by witty eloquence. What more, Hepburn shows the confidence and independence Holly exudes which many thought Monroe could not have matched.

However, a casting that’s a discredit to an otherwise delightful movie is Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, the neighbour on the top floor of the brownstone and whose bell Holly rings whenever she loses her front door key, often in the deep of night. In the book, Capote only mentions him shouting down from his top floor, but never describes his appearances. The movie makes a caricature out of Mr. Yunioshi, an offensive portrayal thick with demeaning stereotyped features and mannerism.

Film historian David Thomson refers Rooney’s performance as ‘toxically racist’, and further writes that ‘some people on that picture––the screenwriter George Axelrod, notably––fought with Blake Edwards, the director, about the characterization, but Edwards paid no heed.’ (Thomson, 402)

Notwithstanding, the movie has left audiences with some memorable moments and Hepburn had become an icon. The narrator is given a name and personality; George Peppard plays Paul with matching charm. His quiet and sensible demeanor is a sturdy support to Holly and a needed check to her unbridled exuberance. The pair save each other from their own foibles and failings, bringing the film to a happy romcom ending unlike the book.

The most memorable moment from the film is probably the tune that lingers after all these years. Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ is sung longingly by Holly as she sits on the sill of the open window by the fire escape strumming a guitar. Incidentally, that was a scene at first intended to be cut out if not for Hepburn’s vigorous insistence to keep it in the movie. And we’re all glad that the strong-willed Holly Golightly had her way.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, first published by Random House, NY, 1958.

David Thomson’s quote is taken from his book The Big Screen, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 2012.

This wraps up Novellas in November at Ripple Effects. Once again, I thank Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting. Do check out others’ reviews.

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Novellas in November on Ripple Effects, from book to screen:

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Passing by Nella Larsen

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’: from Novella to Screen”

  1. Yes, it’s such a shame that so many Hollywood movies betray racism to our contemporary eyes, especially in the casting. I like to think, though this may be a fantasy, that if at least they had cast a Japanese actor with the role, that he might have spoken up about representation at the time and had some impact…

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  2. How odd is this? While reading your review, I realized I’ve never read the book or seen the film, and yet the image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly is as clear in my mind as if she were sitting here right now. It’s probably hard for people who weren’t around at the time to comprehend how that image saturated our culture; Hepburn was iconic, and this character took on a life of its own.

    It’s also given me pause to realize I was twelve when the book was published — more than sixty years ago! It was a different time, and while the values were quite different in many ways, I’m not so willing to judge every decision made then by today’s standards. The good news is that change has come in many ways, and with luck we’ll continue changing.

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    1. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what that character is like… after all, Capote never wrote anything negative in terms of his appearance, but the director chose to add some ugly features and have a white man portray him all to make fun. As I’ve mentioned, even the screenwriter at that time fought with the director over such characterization but the director ‘paid no heed.’ Do check out the novella and the movie. It makes an interesting book to screen pairing.

      And if you’re into non-fiction, there’s a documentary on AH I highly recommend, AUDREY, now on Netflix. Surely she was an icon and a star, but It’s the latter part of her life out of the movie limelight, instead, pouring herself into humanitarian work in Africa despite afflicted with cancer that’s so impressive and moving.

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      1. You know what’s interesting about this? I’ve never thought much about whether to start with a book or with its film adaptation, but this suggests there could be value in beginning with the book. Starting with the book, we can form our own image of any given character, and then any similarities or differences in the way that character is portrayed would make for an interesting comparison.

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  3. Audrey Hepburn is always exquisite but I had no idea how closely she fit Capote’s description till reading that paragraph. Who else could they possibly have cast? You’re spot on with Mickey R. — I love him. But not in this part. That was just wrong. Probably indicative of the time, but very wrong. I wonder if Edwards always regretted that.

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    1. It would be interesting to see what they thought about their choices years later. But I did read somewhere that MR said he didn’t know it was offensive to some… well, could that be true!?

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  4. I had forgotten I have watched the film and read the book – that’s quite rare for me. I enjoyed the film, but couldn’t help enjoying the darkness of the book more… but I don’t think a darker film would have been so successful. And it’s a shame about the other changes, it is interesting to learn about the disappointing decisions by the director. It must have been frustrating for those involved.

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      1. After I have waded through Spiral (it goes off air in 5 days) that is next on my list. It is great that it is available on Netflix so currently, Passing was a really good book. Off to read your review now!

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        1. Hope you’ll enjoy the film. Looks like it could be a contender come next awards season. Interesting to see what you think as you compare the book and film. I have the feeling that Larsen and Hall might have a different interpretation re. the final scene as to who did it.

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  5. Lovely post Art. It’s so long since I’ve read the book or seen the movie, but your write up here is wonderful. Can’t imagine Marilyn as Holly.

    I wonder why Edwards ignored the advice re the Rooney character? I wonder whether Edwards was trying to help out Rooney at a time when Rooney’s star was fading? If so, not a wise decision but maybe a kind one?

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