Friday, March 27, 2009

Adapting Literature for Hollywood: Breakfast at Tiffany's

Films made under the societal, industrial and cultural conventions of Classic Hollywood Cinema generally conform to the closed-ended narrative structure and reinforce certain central methods of moral and social controls. Shinning stars, defined gender roles and happy endings are part of the social contract between the filmmakers of the classic Hollywood picture and the expectations of the audience. The adaptation of Truman Capote’s wistful and melancholy BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S presented mid-century Hollywood with many challenges to their strict society-reinforcing conventions.

Perhaps the most obvious bow to these pressures was the invention and conversion of Paul Varjack from un-named narrator to the leading man/love interest characterized by George Pepard and by the reordering of the film’s narrative away from the novella’s 1st person memoir with a discontinuous timeline and ambiguous ending to a fairly conventional Hollywood romantic comedy with a 3 act structure culminating with a classic ideologically accepted coupling, the kiss.

The novella’s sexual politics also needed to be in some respects de-emphasized and re-assigned to conform to the conventions of the time. Audrey Hepburn, arguably reigning Hollywood royalty, was faced with Capote’s character of Holly Golightly as a damaged, un-rooted, party girl who takes money from men in return for her attention and other favors. Holly’s character as written was likely inappropriate for a star of Hepburn’s stature and such elements of her character was muted in George Axelrod’s adaptation and most interestingly much of that story baggage was transferred to Paul Varjack and the invention of his identity as a gigolo or kept man and the character Tewey, his benefactor. Whereas Hepburn’s Holly seems not to have a problem with her lifestyle, Pepard’s Paul is clearly not comfortable in his situation…how could any real man be? The film’s production design supports this idea by making Paul’s apartment a visual metaphor for a gilded cage, garish and emasculating. But why challenge the societal conventions of the day by allowing the leading man to be subjugated so?
Many of the invented scenes clearly telegraph a standard dramatic 3rd act coupling of the leads, specifically the scene at Tiffany’s where Paul asks to have a Crackerjack ring engraved. A ring of course a traditional symbol of Western pair bonding, a critical tenant in the social controls implied in Classic Hollywood conventions. I would argue that in this Hollywood version of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, it is Paul who is the character in the most distress and as part of an Audrey Hepburn star vehicle it is he who is in fact rescued at the end of the film. His very masculinity in fact restored by Holly’s love, true to the classic narrative and broader notions of social mores and accepted gender roles. These were themes not present in Capote’s novella but were almost demanded by the decision by studio executives to turn BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S into the romantic classic it is regarded as. That kiss in the rain between Holly and Paul after finding Cat, while not having anything to do with the original story, is the purest expression of Hollywood fulfilling it’s contract of expectations with the audience.

Hollywood’s Holly Golightly will stand as a type of proto-Carrie Bradshaw of , quirky and breezily independent gal like in Sex and the City as truly befits the star who played her while Capote’s Holly with her damage and baggage will forever seem to me like that crazy chick from FIGHT CLUB.

Preview Capote's Novella on Google Books

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