Thoughts on “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” – From Novella to Film

“What I found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.”

It was once easy for me, particularly as a guy, to just write off “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” as just another in a long line of chick flicks that I wanted nothing to do with. Pictures of Audrey Hepburn as the spunky Holly Golightly adorned the walls of quite a few female dorm rooms in college, many of them awash with pink and flowing with pearls and huge sunglasses. Ugh. For much of my life, my entire experience with the title was from that Deep Blue Something song that basically has absolutely nothing to do with the novella or the movie. But what did I care? It was about some silly girl wasn’t it? How could it be worthwhile?

Naturally, our initial assumptions oftentimes have a habit of proving wrong once we give things a chance. That’s what happened to me last year when I finally got around to watching “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”, which inevitably led me to finally reading the original novella by Truman Capote recently. I loved both, and amazingly enough, despite how nearly identical the two works are in dialogue, overall plot structure, and characters, reading and watching the story are entirely different experiences. Or I would be better off saying that we are looking at two unique visions of Holly Golightly. And of course, Hollywood had its tendency towards a more heavy-handed romance in the film, so I guess you could say the main character is changed quite a bit as well!

Our narrator/protagonist is an aspiring writer who has just moved into a brownstone apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, he begins to develop a curious interest in his neighbor Holly Golightly, a young women in her late teenage years who subsists by hanging around with rich men. It appears to be her sole dream to marry wealthy. She’s peculiar, mysterious, blissfully naive, effortlessly stunning, and utterly enchanting, whether we are reading about her from the perspective of the unnamed narrator of the novella, or watching Audrey Hepburn bounce about on screen. 

As a literary work, Breakfast At Tiffany’s felt to me a lot like a thematic collision between The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. We’ve got a passive but inquisitive and eloquent narrator who observes and idolizes a figure. For Nick Carraway it was Gatsby, and for our narrator it is Holly Golightly. Just as Gatsby created a persona and a life out of pure imagination and drive, so does Holly. They both ran away from their relatively hickish original lives to the East where they could try and fulfill their dreams. Gatsby finds his only to be consumed by it in the end, but Holly? That’s where The Sun Also Rises comes in. 

The main plot of The Sun Also Rises involves a bunch of expatriates living in Paris having a good time, and in the second half of the book a bunch of them go watch the bull fights in Spain. And the theme is pretty much stated out loud when Lady Brett Ashley says to the main character rather early on, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.” That’s how so many of modernity’s most tragic figures function, whether in pursuit of a definite dream or not. They’ve got all this inner turmoil and are constantly running away, in search of some uncertain future that they can’t identify. Maybe it’s tied up with trying to return to a happy memory from the past; maybe they are simply running away from the humdrum that once was their dull life? So they run, run, run away from it all! They flee from attachments, anything that could “hold them back” and anything that might serve to only further complicate their already crumbling lives.

Holly is no different. Sure, she creates a new identity for herself like Gatsby, but she is so restless and hopelessly lost – a woman with no specific dreams or desires – that she seems more akin to Daisy Buchanon than Jay Gatsby. She never feels at home, never truly knows what’s hers or who she is. So she keeps moving and never stops looking, never settles down. And just like Daisy, she’s careless and reckless with her feelings and her love, a victim to her own self-consuming confusion.

But that’s why we adore Holly. We all go through that! She’s a fascinatingly tragic hero who is as puzzling as she is beautiful. And like I said before: the novella and film are strikingly different. Written Holly is blonde and almost boy-like whereas Audrey Hepburn is as charmingly womanly as you can get and quite obviously a brunette. It’s one of those cases where if you’re trying to be truthful to the written work, then it’s kind of a bad casting job. But when you look at the final product, Audrey Hepburn made the character her own that stands out as a completely independent entity that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Holly. She’s just that good!

Perhaps the biggest different between movie and novella has to do with the main character. The narrator in the novella is more passively observant of Holly, admiring her from a sexually detached distance (Capote once admitted that the narrator was in fact gay, despite the fact that the narrator confesses some sort of love for her). Holly even points out that the narrator is a small-looking man, so we picture this feeble, unassuming person with a small ego and very little gusto. So we get an unclouded view of Holly that’s both reverent and objectively judgmental, but ultimately detached enough that when Holly’s wanderlust leaves her dangling on the precipice of leaving America forever, the narrator lacks the willpower to do anything about it. He doesn’t care enough to stop her, or perhaps thinks he has no right to. She leaves, and it ends on a note of wistful wonderment, with the hope that perhaps one day Holly might finally find a place that felt like home, where she might belong.

The movie, however, gets wrapped up in an entirely different drama in the end, partly because of the way director Blake Edwards utilizes George Peppard (a classically handsome man, I must admit) as Paul Varjak, who replaces the nameless narrator. Rather than a tragic portrait of a deluded young girl, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” becomes this charming love story with an amazing final scene.

Paul’s got the guts to essentially call Holly out on what one might call “her bullshit” in the final scenes where she’s trying to flee the country. And even more importantly, he confesses his love to her in simple, direct terms. It rains. Holly abandons her cat. Frustrated and fuming, Paul tells her that running away is no good, that she’s only digging her own grave by refusing to let love in. And then he storms off, leaving her left to choose. What does she do?!?

Do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie and read the novella too. I frankly don’t think the order matters because they different enough from one another that the experiences will be independently pleasant.

And as a matter of convenience, if you feel like reliving that awesome final scene from the movie, here’s a link for you:

Also: The movie is available on Netflix Instant!!