Breakfast at Tiffany's: Essay Q&A
1. How does the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s compare to the book?
The novella was made into a movie in 1961, starring Audrey Hepburn in one of her most famous roles. In many respects the movie shows some fidelity to the original, but there are also some radical departures. The first scene in the novella, in which Joe Bell and the narrator, in 1956, discuss the photographs of the wood sculpture of Holly’s face, is eliminated. There is no flashback to the war years. Instead, the whole story is updated to 1956, and the character of Joe Bell does not appear. The narrator of the novella is also presented in a rather different light. Instead of being a struggling writer yet to make his first sale, the writer in the movie, named Paul, has already published his first collection of short stories and the literary reviews have described him as a “promising” writer. He is a more forceful, less tentative character than the narrator in the novella.
There are a couple of scenes that are not in the book, in one of which Paul and Holly go to Tiffany’s where they make an order to have a cheap ring engraved with their initials. This points to a major difference between the movie and the book. Paul and Holly get far more involved with each other in the movie than the unnamed narrator does with Holly in the book. Indeed, in the movie they become romantically involved with each other. They even share a passionate kiss. (This explains why Paul is presented as more established in his profession than the narrator in the novella; he needs to be made into a more mature man with whom Holly might indeed get romantically involved.) Then Holly rejects Paul and says she is going to marry the Brazilian. This is the romantic contretemps that provides the energy and dramatic tension in the movie that Truman Capote chose not to insert in the novella.
Toward the end the movie becomes pure Hollywood. In the taxi to the airport, the relationship between the lovers reaches its nadir. When Holly insists, against Paul’s advice, on going to the airport, he stops the taxi, gets out and lectures her, saying that although she thinks of herself as a wild thing, she is in fact trapped by her unwillingness to commit to a relationship, always insisting on her own freedom. He stomps off to find the cat, but of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, it is not all over—she jumps out of the taxi and follows him. They find the cat and then embrace and kiss each other in the rain, with the fine-looking ginger cat perched between them. It is a traditional Hollywood ending for a romantic comedy, but very different from the original. Capote himself did not approve of it. However, it must be remembered that a movie should be judged not by how faithful it is to a book from which it is adapted but by how successful it is on its own terms as a movie. Judged in that light, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is very successful movie, with fine performances, amusing scenes, dramatic conflict, and a satisfying emotional conclusion.
2. Is Breakfast at Tiffany’s “more style than substance”?
Capote’s detractors sometimes claim that his work focuses on style rather substance. By this they mean that that Capote is a fine craftsman with words, but his books are more about showing verbal dazzle than exploring serious themes. A similar criticism is sometimes made about another contemporary American writer, John Updike. How valid is this criticism when applied to Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Certainly, the book can be enjoyed for its comedic, satirical style. The party scene at Tiffany’s apartment is a case in point. Capote clearly relishes his descriptions of characters such as O. J. Berman, Rusty Trawler, and Mag Wildwood. These can be read and savored more than once. Just to give one short example, here is just part of the first appearance of O. J. Berman: “His bald freckled head was dwarf-big: attached to it was a pair of pointed, truly elfin ears. He had Pekingese eyes, unpitying and slightly bulged.” The dialog also sparkles, and one senses that Capote has captured the style and the colloquialisms of 1940s New York with deadly accuracy. Holly’s long monologue, stretching uninterrupted over two pages of text, when she confides with absolute honesty to the narrator her views on love and life, is especially engaging stylistically. It carries a light but forceful energy; the variations in rhythm, peppered with slang, foreign expressions, idiosyncratic emphases, and the occasional epigram, perfectly express the spirit of the woman.
But Breakfast at Tiffany’s is more than just frothy style. In the metaphors that express Holly’s deepest desires, it touches on a universal core of meaning—the human longing for peace, calm, and security. This is expressed in the metaphor of Tiffany’s the jewelers as a place where Holly can relax and escape the “mean reds” (depression and fear). It is touched on again in her image of herself as like a wild thing that lives in the sky. She tells Joe Bell that this is not as good as it might appear: “it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place, so vague.” This captures the emptiness of her life and her longing for a place of rest—again, a universal human desire that helps to provide some depth of meaning to this stylistically dazzling novel.
3. What roles do Madame Sapphia Spanella and Joe Bell play in the novel?
Both these characters play minor but important roles. Madame Sapphia Spanella is the tenant who lives in Holly’s building and takes a dislike to Holly. It is she who circulates a petition among the other tenants calling for Holly’s eviction, and she who leads the two detectives to Holly when there is a warrant for her arrest. She describes Holly as a “whore.” When she sees Holly with Doc Golightly, Holly’s husband, who is thirty-five years older than Holly, she immediately thinks the worst and says “It’s a disgrace.” Madame Sapphia Spanella represents prim respectability, the kind of person who will always be offended by someone like Holly who flouts convention with such enjoyment. Hers is the voice of moral outrage. Capote includes her in the novel because he wants to dramatize the fact that Holly shocks people and remind the reader of this fact from time to time.
Joe Bell fulfills a quite different function. Joe is an ordinary working man—he runs a bar on Lexington Avenue, but he too falls under Holly’s spell. In 1956, at the age of sixty-six, he is still thinking about her, twelve years after he last saw her. The narrator guesses that Joe was in love with Holly, but Joe insists that it was a pure kind of love. He did not want to have a sexual relationship with her; it was as if he idealized her and adored her from afar. The fact that it was not only wealthy, high-society men like Rusty Trawler and José Ybarra-Jaegar who fell for Holly’s mystique, but also a regular Joe like Joe Bell, shows how Holly’s appeal was universal. She exerted a peculiar fascination over all men, a fascination that would still be felt even last after a long separation. Capote introduces Joe Bell early in the story to alert the reader to this very point about Holly.
4. Why is Breakfast at Tiffany’s sometimes called a prose-romance?
Critics often refer to Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a prose-romance. By that they mean, first, that it is not written in realistic mode. The realist writer attempts to make his fiction resemble real life as much as possible, to give the impression (illusion, really) that he is imitating things as they really are. As M. H. Abrams puts it in A Glossary of Literary Terms, the realist “prefers the average, the commonplace, and the everyday over the rarer aspects of the contemporary scene.” This definition makes it clear that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not a realist novel. The setting in New York is realistic enough (the brownstone house where Holly lives, for example), but the characters and the situations they get into (Holly especially) are not. Critic Ihab Hassan has commented that Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as two of Capote’s early longer narratives, “engage reality without being realistic” (quoted in Kenneth T. Reed’s Truman Capote, p. 71). In contrast to realism is the romance. As a literary genre, romance has nothing to do with romantic love or the modern romance novel. The modern prose-romance, according to M. H. Abrams, usually employs “larger than life” characters who are “sharply discriminated as heroes and villains”; the plot emphasizes adventure, “and is often cast in the form of a quest for an ideal.” The plot may well be implausible or contain implausible episodes. One example of a modern prose-romance would be Saul Bellow’s comic adventure novel, Henderson the Rain King (1959). Holly Golightly, the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is certainly a larger-than-life figure who gets involved in a series of improbable episodes (her marriage as a child to Doc Golightly, for example). The novel may not exactly be a quest-romance, but it certainly has elements of a quest, as Holly continually searches for a home, a place where she can feel she belongs. The comic finale, in which the heroine miraculously escapes getting caught up in the grim, law-and-order world of Manhattan, as well as the hint of her continuing adventures in Africa with which the novel begins, are pure romance, well out of the range of the realist mode.
5. What role does music play in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, both in the book and the film?
Holly Golightly plays the guitar frequently and well. The narrator often hears her playing and singing as she sits out on the fire escape. One of the songs she loves most expresses the idea that she just wants to spend her life traveling. As such, it reinforces what the reader knows about her personality, suggesting a whimsicality and a capacity to entertain dreams. The guitar motif is common in Capote’s work, and in the movie it is even more prominent than in the book. The score of the movie was written by Henry Mancini, and it centers around a song he wrote entirely for Audrey Hepburn, who played Holly. The song is called “Moon River” and has since been recorded hundreds of times by many different artists. Although it includes none of the words that occur in the song Holly sings in the book, “Moon River” expresses the same aspect of her nature: her capacity to imagine something out of the ordinary. This is seen in the song’s motifs of crossing a river, letting the river dictate where two travelers go who want to see the world. In keeping with the more romantic nature of the movie, when compared to the book, the song features two people traveling together, whereas in the book, the song Holly loves best makes no mention of a second person. Hepburn reportedly loved the song.