The movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a swoony, delicious, captivating film. Its main character is Holly Golightly, delectably played by Audrey Hepburn. But the film is a very different work from its original source — a novella by Truman Capote.
Holly is a girl from Tulip, Texas, a child bride who escapes to New York and reinvents herself as a Manhattan socialite, a kooky, gorgeous, tough yet vulnerable girl about town who throws wild parties and entrances rich men. She eventually finds love with the struggling writer who is her neighbour.
The opening shot
The film’s opening scene is the stuff of movie history. It’s 5am on an empty, dimly lit Fifth Avenue. A yellow cab pulls up outside No 527, and a woman gets out.
She’s the picture of elegance and sophistication, seemingly on her way home from some swanky affair, in a black satin dress with a low-cut back, a rope of pearls fastened with an ornate clasp, and glittery earrings. She’s wearing oversized tortoiseshell sunglasses. Her hair is piled into an elaborate up-do, and sports some interesting streaks of colour.
She gazes at the building, which we realise is Tiffany&Co, while eating a pastry and drinking coffee from a paper cup.
All the messages are received. This woman is both conventionally stylish and a little offbeat. The renowned jewellers has emotional resonance for her. She looks as if she could afford to shop there and, indeed, anywhere, but, as we later discover, Tiffany’s is her safe place, which calms her anxieties and makes her feel that nothing bad could happen while she’s within its hallowed walls.
Holly Getting Ready For The Prison Visit
It’s Thursday morning, Holly’s regular day for taking information to a mobster in jail. She switches from her adorable sleeping gear — turquoise and gold sleep mask, fancy tasselled earplugs and the crispest of crisp, snowy white men’s dress shirt — to become the picture of daytime elegance in a wide-brimmed hat and low alligator shoes.
It’s all here — the effortless, quirky glamour, the ease of reinvention, the dodgy connections which pay well.
The outfit Holly wears when visiting Tiffany’s with her writer beau is a stunner. A shaped, double-breasted, funnel-necked orange wool coat with a tie at the back, kitten heels and a classic tote bag.
She looks a million dollars, but, as they explain to the sales clerk in Tiffany’s, they have only $10 to spend. The sales clerk is an absolute star and treats the gimcrack ring from a cereal box which they present for engraving with serious politeness.
The scene reinforces Holly’s perception of the solid comfort of Tiffany’s — the lovely sales clerk doesn’t once think of calling security.
A different world
The trouble is that not one of the above scenes from the film appears in Truman Capote’s book.
The original content and dialogue which is included is shaped to present a picture very different from Mr Capote’s gritty, multi-layered depiction of the relationship between a complicated, troubled, fascinating call girl and her gay neighbour.
The novella examines the nature of identity and the diverse faces of love. It poses questions about the need to be free and the craving for stability. It presents ideas about belonging and exclusion. It makes us aware of the shifting nature of truth, as we hear Holly’s story through a number of filters and a number of narrative voices.
Truman Capote’s book is a complex work that has been shaped for the screen into a traditional love story with mainstream appeal.
The neighbour-narrator is given an older sugar-mama who he can dump for Holly; Holly makes a living from taking weather reports to SingSing and from the money that men give her for the powder room.
In the novel, Holly ends up, as far as we can tell, in Africa, last seen riding horseback through the brush with two men. They stayed in an isolated hut with a woodcarver while the men recover from fever. Holly sleeps with the woodcarver, who makes a wooden sculpture of her head. Icons come in many forms.
Some of the film’s adaptations work well. Moon River — Johnny Mercer’s and Henry Mancini’s timeless song — was written specifically for the movie.
Holly sings it while sitting on a window sill and strumming her guitar. She’s wearing blue jeans and her hair is wrapped in a turban.
It’s a downbeat, almost private moment, which reflects the novel’s description of how she would play plaintive melodies and ‘harsh-tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of piney-woods or prairie’.
Holly’s cat, who is a loner like her and who she calls ‘a poor slob without a name’, has a good ending in both the book and the movie. In both, Holly lets him go, then regrets it.
In the movie, Holly finds Cat on the street and takes him home.
In the book, she can’t find him and has to abandon the search and go off to Brazil. The narrator promises to find him, and after weeks of combing the streets of Spanish Harlem, he spots Cat. He is seated in the window of a warm-looking room, flanked by potted plants and clean lace curtains, comfortable in his new home.
Good old Cat. Like Holly, he’s a survivor.
Hats Off To — Truman Capote
The movie is the champagne cocktail to the novella’s White Angel, which is the blend of one-half vodka, one-half gin, no vermouth that Holly’s local bartender concocts. We’re grown up, we can have both.
But Norman Mailer said of Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s that he would not have changed two words of it. It would be a shame if a fine work of literature were eclipsed by a little black dress and a string of pearls.