It is ironic that Truman Capote's filigree-fine novella Breakfast at Tiffany's is now best known and most remembered as a vulgar Hollywood movie. The director Blake Edwards took Capote's carefully nuanced tale of the morally ambiguous Holly Golightly and turned into a full-blown romantic comedy.It had a hideous racist performance from Mickey Rooney as Holly's Chinese upstairs neighbour, a leaden one from George Peppard as the young man who falls for her, and a sanitised plotline. Although the adaptor George Axelrod used great chunks of Capote's original dialogue, he jettisoned almost everything that gave the book its unique and haunting tone.
"The book was really rather bitter," said Capote, ruefully, late in life. "The film became a mawkish valentine to New York City, and as a result was thin and pretty, whereas it should have been rich and ugly."The major asset of the movie, made in 1961, is Audrey Hepburn. Capote didn't like her much either - he wanted his friend Marilyn Monroe, much closer in background, appearance and probable ultimate fate to his conception of Lulamae Golightly, the girl from the backwoods who reinvents herself first in Los Angeles and then in New York.
Hepburn is too refined, too effortlessly chic for this earthy vision. But she too had her mysteries. There's a wistfulness that lurks behind her luminous wide eyes, and it is this, as much as the way she wears her little black dresses that makes her Holly so much loved.From the minute Anna Friel stepped on to the stage of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London this week, in Samuel Adamson's new stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany's it was clear that she intends to banish the ghost of Hepburn from everyone's mind. Wearing a (rather bad) blonde wig, and 1940s rather than 1950s garb, her Holly is a toughie with a heart of gold, a charming "phoney" but one whose wildness is propelled by fear and loneliness.
She is much nearer to Sally Bowles than to Hepburn, and thus much closer to Capote's original vision. This is, indeed, the point of the entire stage version. Although it turns his nameless narrator into a character called William Parsons (Capote's original surname) in most other respects it is entirely true to the spirit of the book. It catches the rackety nature of Holly's life, her liaisons with many unsuitable men in the interests of keeping herself afloat.
What it entirely misses is the beauty of Capote's prose. The reason you read Breakfast at Tiffany's is not for the story, but for its observations. It is the kind of book that makes you want to turn down the corners of the pages to mark forever phrases such as "Then the picture became both darker and clearer", or his description of a girl whose "flat eyes only turned to the stars to estimate their chemical tonnage".
All this is lost in the stage adaptation, just as much as in the film. And, despite the fluency of Sean Matthias's direction, you begin to ask exactly why you are watching more than two and a half hours of Breakfast at Tiffany's on stage, rather than curling up at home and reading the book in the first place.The answer to that question seems to depend on how strongly you respond to Friel; her extended scene in the nude has caused a bit of an internet sensation, with theatre staff instructed to stop the audience taking pictures. But beautiful though she is, and despite the emotion of her portrayal, I couldn't for the life of me see the point of this particular adaptation.
I am not saying that novels should not be staged. But I do think the theatre owes it to itself to bring something extra to the book. If you think back to the RSC's magnificent adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby or the National Theatre's current one of War Horse, both used the experience of theatre to add something to the prose, to rethink it for a different medium.In Breakfast at Tiffany's all you feel is loss. It may attract the crowds, but it won't ever go down as a true theatrical sensation.