“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The Message of Truman Capote’s Novella Compared to the Film Adaptation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A Look at the Source Text: Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

3. A Look at the Adaptation Process: from Book to Film
3.1. The Rocky Road to Adaptation
3.2. The Issue of Sexuality

4. A Look at How the Story is Told in Book and Film
4.1. The Plo
4.2. The Characters
4.2.1. Holly Golightly
4.2.2. The Narrator/Paul Varjak
4.3. The Atmosphere
4.4. Key Issues and Motifs
4.4.1 The Conflict Between Security and Freedom.
4.4.2. The Quest for Identity: in Search of a Name
4.4.3. Diversity of Love

5. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

8. Table of Figures

1. Introduction

Breakfast at Tiffany’s has come to be identified with this picture:

Fig. 1: Audrey Hepburn in front of Tiffany’s

It is Audrey Hepburn, playing the part of Holly Golightly in the 1961 film adaptation, having breakfast in front of the Fifth Avenue Tiffany’s store in New York. The story is well known: Holly, a young glamour girl, tries to find her way in New York City, relying on the favor of male benefactors who give her “powder-room change”, while at the same time she keeps chasing her dream of marrying a rich millionaire. Paul Varjak, a young writer, falls in love with her and tries to convince her to settle down with him. The movie has become a crucial cultural reference. But before the film, there was a source text: a novella by the same title, written by Truman Capote and published in 1958. The film adaption was made only three years later, by director Blake Edwards, scriptwriter George Axelrod and the producers Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd.

Those who have read Capote’s novella and have seen the film usually complain about huge difference between the two – and they undoubtedly have a point. However, adaptation studies have far too long concentrated on the issue of fidelity alone, implying that a story could just be projected on the screen without having to undergo change. But film and literature are two very different mediums and thus, in the process of an adaptation, transformation must occur. As Mary H. Snyder puts it: “It also makes it seem as if film […] simply recreates a written story as it has been written. This, also, is not the case in most instances and, and usually can’t be. Film has its own qualities, its own elements, that are used to put together a narrative meant to have an impact, to move its audience” (Snyder 138).

There is no need for proving that book and film are different – this has been discussed many times before and can be read in a great number of critical reviews. But there is much more to adaptation studies than a simple fidelity analysis. What I intend to do is to find out why book and film differ crucially in many points in order to prove that in spite of sharing (at least in big part) the same characters, the same setting, important parts of the story, key motifs and even often the same dialogues, the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the film based on it actually tell very different stories with very different, even contradictory underlying messages and thus with a very different reception and impact. So, what I am not going to do is to provide a list of similarities and/or differences – a trail of thought that would inevitably lead to the unfruitful discussion which of the two is “better”. But what I am going to do is to investigate the adaptation process and to find out what book and film achieve with their specific devices. If there are significant changes, why were they made? For financial reasons? Out of anxiety about the public’s possible reaction to the movie? Or did parts of the novella turn out to be inadaptable for other reasons?

In order to treat these questions, I am first going to give a short overview about relevant issues in Capote’s novella, its reception and the controversy surrounding it. In the next chapter I am going to focus on what is told how. How do novella and film use their specific devices to tell the story and to depict the characters? What atmosphere is conveyed in both and what issues do they focus on? Where have crucial changes been made and why? In the conclusion, there will be a short overview of the reception and impact of the film in order to find out if it actually conveys the same message as the book does. But first a look at the source text without which an adaptation would not have been possible.

2. A Look at the Source Text: Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

When published in 1958, Truman Capote’s novella caused quite a stir, exactly for the reasons which would later prove to be obstacles for the film adaptation: Holly’s profession, open homo- and bisexuality as well as the frank language. Lauded by some critics, it was fiercely rejected by others. Harper’s Bazaar, where the novella was supposed to be published, even backed out and it was printed in Esquire magazine (Gristwood 23). When published, Breakfast at Tiffany’s rose to instant fame. Capote was already a celebrated writer at that point and very popular. Many women claimed to have been the inspiration for Holly (Gristwood 24pp.). Capote himself talked about the alleged model for Holly in a 1968 interview with the Playboy and identified her as a 17-year-old German war refugee who came to New York and moved into his building where they became friends (Capote Playboy 162). But it seems more likely that many of the people Capote knew influenced the character of Holly, while at the same time she became a symbol of a lifestyle – as Capote said in the same interview: “The main reason I wrote about Holly, outside of the fact that I liked her so much, was that she was such a symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like May flies and then disappear. I wanted to rescue one girl from that anonymity and preserve her for posterity” (161).

But there is a very interesting point in Capote’s story about the alleged model for his Holly: he identifies himself with the narrator. Holly moved in his brownstone building and they became close friends. This is a very important point because it accounts for many characteristics of the narrator, most of which were not preserved in the film. First, the narrator is not heterosexual. Many argue he is implied to be homosexual: “Though it is never explicitly stated, “Fred” is indeed a homosexual. Truman codified it somewhat, but it’s in there for the taking” (Wasson 62). Still, the novella is not clear on this point. Sarah Gristwood calls the narrator “a figure of anonymous personality (and unexplored sexuality)” (Gristwood 20). At one point he even starts to kiss Holly (Capote Tiffany’s 72). So different sexual orientations are alluded to; this will be discussed later on. He is a struggling, but self-sufficient writer who has just moved into a brownstone house in Manhattan and forms a strong, deep friendship with Holly, a straight woman. Capote brought many pieces of his own life into this book. In big part, the narrator sounds like a personification of the author himself: a young, not heterosexual writer, new to New York, struggling for approval. Besides, Capote, gay himself, was friends with many straight women and many of them showed characteristics of Holly. And there was another biographical source: Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae – an obvious resemblance to Holly’s real name Lulamae – went from man to man, trying hard to find a home. She also changed her name when she left her son to go to New York (Wasson 2). All of this clearly shows that Capote put a great deal of himself into this novella. This is why he also felt very strongly about it. He even identified with the narrator to a point where he originally wanted to play the role in the film adaptation (Wasson 76)! Against this backdrop it comes as a surprise that Capote would hand the rights to his novella completely over to the film’s producers with the risk of not being able to influence the adaptation process even though it might deviate from what he considered the book’s message. However, this is exactly what happened and it is a major reason for the way the film adaptation was made.

3. A Look at the Adaptation Process: from Book to Film

3.1. The Rocky Road to Adaptation

How an adaptation is made, depends in big part on if the author of the source text is involved in the adaptation process or not. Some authors write their own scripts, others work as advisors and still others sell the rights to their book and stay out of the process. As Capote’s novella became an instant success, the movie rights to Breakfast at Tiffany’s were much coveted (Gristwood 31). Martin Jurow, one of the movie’s co-producers, managed to convince Capote to sell him the rights only a few months after the book was published in October 1958; so from this point on, Capote was not involved in the process anymore and had no influence on the decisions taken. It is important to keep this in mind because it means that the producers and the director had the right to change and adapt the story in any way they deemed fitting (Brady 4). The producers chose George Axelrod as scriptwriter. Now, in the course of writing the screen play and shooting the movie there were several causes for concern for the producers, leading them to implement sweeping changes, mostly for two main reasons: first what Snyder calls “audience reception anxiety” (Snyder 253) and second the requirements of the Motion Picture Production Code.

Other changes were due to the novella’s specific elements. Truman Capote’s novella was very popular, but nevertheless it was deemed inadaptable for being “a novella with no second act, a nameless gay protagonist, a motiveless drama, and an unhappy ending” (Wasson xix). So, due to “the nature of the book” (Snyder 229), the adaptation had to deviate from the source text in order to fit the conventions of Hollywood. The task was, as Shepherd himself put it, to convert “this character study into aclear-cutdramaticstorylinewith an even clearer audiencepointofview” (Gristwood 34). Shepherd hits the core of the problem here: there is not much “action” in the novella; it is more of a character study of Holly (and of the narrator, too) than a “story” in the traditional sense. This was not appropriate for the film medium where viewers had certain expectations. Axelrod identified this as his greatest challenge when writing the script: “Nothing really happened in the book. All we had was this glorious girl […]. What we had to do was devise a story, get a central romantic relationship” (Gristwood 66).

Here the audience reception anxiety comes in. Director Blake Edwards said that “Axelrod followed the novella, but he added a plot, a love story, for commercial reasons. I don’t mean for money, but for audience approval” (Gristwood 66). The audience did not want to see a woman (with a gay friend) struggling with dark problems and finally leaving in despair. They wanted a love story overcoming obstacles, with the girl and the boy getting together at the end to live happily ever after. To produce anything else would have meant a serious financial risk as the movie might have become a huge flop. So Axelrod took the central idea and characters from Capote’s novella and then proceeded “to the translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s from one kind of story to another – character study to romantic comedy, homosexual to heterosexual, platonic to erotic” (Wasson 89). Edwards and Axelrod agreed that a close adaptation of Capote’s novella might frighten people for its cynicism (Wasson 110). They needed a happy ending to make money – an unhappy ending would most certainly not have attracted large crowds. So, from this point of view, it was actually a matter of survival for the film to have a happy ending added.

But not only the nature of Capote’s novella and the expectations of the audience accounted for changes – the producers ran into trouble with the Production Code as well. The Production Code (also known as Hays Code) was a code of decency for movies, decided upon by the Motion Picture Association (MPA) and by whose rules filmmakers had to abide. Its Production Code Administration (PCA), established in 1934, required “all films to acquire a certificate of approval before release or be charged with a hefty fine” (Snyder 163). Breakfast at Tiffany’s was deemed ‘indecent’ for one simple reason: sexuality.

3.2. The Issue of Sexuality

Truman Capote’s novella is quite frank in terms of sexuality. Not only does he allow for different sexual orientations (see below), but his heroine Holly sleeps with men for money and does not bother to hide it. Her language is very open as well. The PCA, however, was extremely strict with regards to sex before or out of marriage. The historical context has to be kept in mind here. The movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out in 1961 – just after the 1950s with their highly conservative society. It was a tremendous challenge to bring a sexually ‘promiscuous’ character like Holly on screen in this climate. The producers as well as Axelrod knew that they had to make their film pass the inspection by the PCA. The resulting attempt to downplay Holly’s profession can already be seen in the casting of the female protagonist. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role (Wasson 75), because her image fitted the role of Holly quite well. However, considering the strictness of the PCA, it was clear that Holly could not be put on screen the way she was portrayed in Capote’s novella. The producers needed an actress that could convey subdued sexuality and play the part of Holly without arousing moral protest – in short: an actress that looked like a ‘good girl’ while playing a bad one (Gristwood 93). So they decided on Audrey Hepburn which seems to be a rather strange choice. Hepburn was certainly not the person one would associate with sexual promiscuity, but that was exactly the point: Hepburn made Holly acceptable, for the PAC and for the public. Her aura of purity softened the sexual tension to a point where many viewers did not even realize Holly’s profession (Gristwood 71). But in doing so, Hepburn decisively changed the Holly Capote had created and the writer clearly voiced his discontent: “Marilyn would have been absolutely marvelous in it […]. She was terrifically good, but Paramount double-crossed me in every conceivable way and cast Audrey. The book was really rather bitter, and Holly Golightly was real – a tough character, not an Audrey Hepburn type at all” (Gristwood 39). But as Capote had sold the rights, there was nothing he could do about it.


Excerpt out of 25 pages


“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The Message of Truman Capote’s Novella Compared to the Film Adaptation
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Cultural Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, cat, Holly Goligthly, Paul Varjak, Truman Capote, book, film, sexuality, adaptation, narrator, freedom, identity, love, Yunioshi, happy ending, Hollywood, homosexuality, heterosexuality, Production Code Administration, PCA, MPA, Motion Picture Association, angst, death
Quote paper
B.A. Damaris Englert (Author), 2013, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The Message of Truman Capote’s Novella Compared to the Film Adaptation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/263601


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