The Light House Cinema Book Club: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

by Padraic Coffey

Of the many clichés regularly peddled out by pseudo-intellectuals attempting to assert their cultural superiority, perhaps the most obliviously small-minded is, “the book is always better than the film”. While it is invariably the case that books are richer, more detailed and more involving than their big-screen counterparts, how are we to interpret the word “better” in this case? After all, literature and cinema are such drastically different art forms, flatly weighing up the pros and cons of each does a disservice to their respective strengths.

Certainly, blind belief that “the book is always better than the film” would not be met with approval by Holly Golightly, the central character of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. After Holly expresses her love of Wuthering Heights, her momentarily perplexed companion – the book’s unnamed narrator – breathes a sigh of relief upon learning that Holly was referring to William Wyler’s cinematic adaptation, and not Brontë’s original text. Holly sharply responds, “Everybody has to feel superior to somebody… But it’s customary to present a little proof before you take the privilege”.

In many ways, Capote’s slim paperback made perfect sense to kick-start the Light House Cinema’s new book club, as it did on Monday 24th September. Clocking in at a mere 91 pages in its Penguin edition, the book’s brisk length suggested few would cry ‘sacrilege’ at liberties taken in excising vital passages for the sake of cinematic shorthand. However, one of those who did protest at Blake Edwards’ cinematic version was Capote himself. Bemoaning the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Holly, the acid-tongued author alleged the film made him “want to throw up”. Audiences differed with Capote’s assessment. The film grossed almost six times its original budget at the box office, as well as scooping five Oscar nominations, of which it won two.

Seen today, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains a flawed, insubstantial but generally entertaining picture, gorgeously shot in Technicolor, and featuring one of the most dauntingly handsome casts ever assembled on screen. Whether or not Marilyn Monroe, Capote’s preferred choice for Holly, would have embodied the character more faithfully than the much less overtly sexual Hepburn, there’s no doubting the latter is hypnotically beautiful in the role, and has become an unparalleled fashion icon, imitated at countless fancy dress parties year after year.

Capote would later mischievously claim that the book’s unnamed narrator was gay. Here the character – christened Paul Varjak – is played by George Peppard, years before his turn as the cigar-chomping, grey-haired ‘Hannibal’ Smith in television’s The A-Term. Predating that project by two decades, Peppard is unrecognisably handsome as the blonde-haired, square-jawed essayist, entranced enough by Hepburn’s sleek socialite to break away from his wealthy suitor, Ms. Failenson (Patricia Neal). The addition of Failenson, perhaps the most radical difference between the film and its source material, rebukes any thought of Paul being homosexual, unthinkable in Hays Code-era Hollywood.

While Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an anesthetised take on Capote’s novella, discarding many of the story’s darker elements – miscarriage, Holly’s promiscuity – the film does push the boundaries of what could be shown in 1960s cinema. Not only do Holly and Paul attend a striptease show, but Paul’s dependent relationship with the much older Failenson is tantamount to male prostitution.  That said, a party held in Holly’s apartment, no doubt considered hip at the time of the film’s release, now looks laughably dated.

The phrase ‘laughably dated’ is also evoked by the film’s most notorious casting decision, that of Mickey Rooney as Holly’s upstairs neighbour, Mr Yunioshi. Donning prosthetic-teeth, spectacles and yellow-tinged makeup, Rooney’s grotesque caricature recalls the anti-Japanese propaganda posters of World War II. Not only does it fail as a sensitive portrayal of an ethnic minority, Rooney’s portrayal fails as an attempt at comic-relief: it simply isn’t funny. Most infuriately, it shows oversight on the part of Edwards and screenwriter George Axelrod; Capote’s text identified Yunioshi as a Californian, not a Tokyoite spluttering broken English.  Though the film updates the book’s setting from the early 1940s – a time when thousands of Japanese-Americas were interned without cause – to the early 1960s, such crassness is glaring to any thoughtful modern audience.

In cinematic terms, Breakfast at Tiffany’s closest cousin is Billy Wilder’s superior The Apartment, released one year prior. Just as that Oscar-winner was a treatise on New York’s sexual politics, so too is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Just as Jack Lemmon’s character in that film, C.C. Baxter, rejects the lucrative career-path afforded to him by burying his feelings for elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), so too does Paul shun the affluent Ms. Failenson in favour of the penniless Holly. And just as Wilder ends his film with an optimistic, if slightly ambiguous, moment between his two protagonists, Edwards’ film ends with a rain-swept embrace between Paul and Holly, but no indication as to whether their newfound love is compatible with our heroine’s footloose lifestyle.

All these topics, and more, were covered in the group discussion that followed a glistening print of Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Monday 24th September in the Light House Cinema. The film was introduced by Charlene Lydon, programmer at the Light House, in conjunction with Jarlath Gregory of Chapters Bookstore, inaugurating the first book club to be held in the cinema. The premise is straightforward – purchase a prescribed book from Chapters, read it, then attend a screening of its cinematic adaptation in the Light House. Those who wish to remain can then discuss the merits of either book or film in a friendly and sociable atmosphere.

After a packed auditorium took in Edwards’ film, a respectable number stayed for the book club, led by Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann of Element Pictures. Though concluding in time for patrons to avoid falling foul Dublin’s public transport curfew, the Light House should be commended for this innovative scheme which, as Jarlath Gregory alluded to in his introduction, promotes independent businesses like the Light House and Chapters at a time when multiplexes and bookstore-chains dominate every city the world over.

Next up for the Light House’s book club is The Shining, to coincide with both Halloween and upcoming documentary Room 237, examining the hidden meanings behind Stanley Kubrick’s film. Those interested should grab a copy of Stephen King’s original novel in time for another big-screen outing of Jack Nicholson’s axe-wielding, catchphrase-happy author Jack Torrance, smashing his way through the Overlook Hotel.

The next Light House book club event takes place on November 5th, 2012.

Twitter: @Padraic_Coffey

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