Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Great Gatsby reimagined

I finally read Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's last week. It's a classic American novella, a quick read, and a bit of a disappointment. I've looked forward to reading this for years. I had assumed that I would like Capote as a writer, and I do like the movie reasonably well. Perhaps I was too familiar with the story to really appreciate Capote's words--and the movie, as I remember it, it's been awhile since I watched it, is very true to the original story.

For starters, there's a dated glibness to the writing that I found tired. Perhaps it was considered fresh and hip in 1958, but I had assumed it would hold up better to the test of time. I love to earmark pages with passages that resonate with me, but I finished the story with nary an earmarked page. That says a lot right there.

Last night when I was thinking about what to say about Breakfast at Tiffany's, I thought about how much I liked the first-person narrator (much more than Holly Golightly, in fact) and it struck me that I liked him in the same way that I liked Nick Carroway from The Great Gatsby so much more than Gatsby. Both are middle of the road, steady hand on the tiller types, and both are budding novelists, which makes them, in a cliche world anyway, excellent observers as well as foils for the flashier types like Holly Golightly and Jay Gatsby, who streak across their sky and then vanish into the American mythos.

Both Holly Golightly and Jay Gatsby are characters that Lula Mae Barnes and James Gatz forge out of the drab, dead-end, prosaic material into which they are born and which they can't bear to own. If Gatsby is Fitzgerald's symbol of the American Dream circa 1929, then Holly Golightly is Capote's circa 1958. For me, though, the real hero of both works is the virtually nameless writer who keeps a steady head and hand while recording the stories that he uncovers. He plugs away at articulating the hopes and dreams that he witnesses, falls in love with Holly/Gatsby but is mature enough to recognize that they are images and icons who have sold their past and so have no future.

So I wonder, did Capote set out to rewrite The Great Gatsby? I didn't want to see if anyone else had made this connection before I wrote this post, so I just Googled and found this piece in The Guardian from September 2009, which makes even more of a case than I did. Knowing the little I do about Capote, though, I doubt he would ever have owned up to consciously reworking The Great Gatsby.

Even if Capote did set out to rewrite The Great Gatsby, that still doesn't account for my ho-hum response to Breakfast at Tiffany's itself. The work is dated and just doesn't stand up to the test of time in the way The Great Gatsby does. However, I'm so glad that I read it because finding the parallels to TGG was a kick. There's always a silver lining.


  1. A very thought provoking post. I've always loved The Great Gatsby since I read it in High School. I haven't read Breakfast at Tiffany's but I have seen both movies. Let's say I wasn't enthralled with either movie, but I did enjoy the performances, particularly George Peppard on whom I developed a little crush after viewing B@T. Audrey Hepburn is always a joy to watch but I could never understand the character she played. Holly Golightly somehow seemed like a bit of a farce to me. (?) As for Jay Gatsby -- he was very intriguing but not really likeable. I agree that Nick was the oil that kept the plot rolling along.
    What I really admired The Great Gatsby for was the poetic language in all the descriptive passages. It truly was a masterpiece!
    I never thought to compare them, but I can certainly see the similarities, since you have pointed them out.
    I would think it just might be a case of unconscious stylistic echoing, much like an homage and not outright plagarism.

  2. What a great post! I've never read Breakfast at Tiffany's, but I'll confess that I am not a huge fan of the movie. I like my heroines with a little more substance.

    The similarities you point out are fascinating. I will definitely be thinking about this further. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I remember reading that article from the Guardian on their blog. I was intrigued by the comparison and could see the relation, although I've only seen the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany's. I love Audrey Hepburn, but that's not one of my favorite of her movies, so I've never thought I would enjoy the book. Glad to know I'm not missing anything. That article from the Guardian asked people to submit their other examples of similar books like that, and it was interesting to read through those.

  4. Great post Jane! Thank you! I haven't read either but have seen film adaptations and am shocked I never noticed the similarities.

  5. I remember reading 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' when I was at high school and being very disappointed in the book. That was a long time ago too, and the writing struck me as pretty out-dated then. I'm considering reading it again but I don't think that I will change my mind. The boy who sold it to me thought that I wouldn't like it, so he must have been a good judge of character!

    I liked 'The Great Gatsby' much better. I found the 'Guardian' article about the similarities very interesting.

  6. Fascinating post, Jane. My only familiarity with Capote's writing is In Cold Blood which I read earlier this year, though that's non-fiction, an account of a real life murder spree. The Great Gatsby is on my long-term TBR list, I'm just not in any hurry to read it just yet.

    I love to earmark pages with passages that resonate with me, but I finished the story with nary an earmarked page. That says a lot right there.
    I do that too! My books often end up with several scraps of paper/postcards/leaflets/post-it notes if I'm really organised - stuck in them to mark passages I like/ones which are key - often I type them out and save them in a 'quotations' file if they aren't too long. ('Fraid I'm one of these purists who can't bear to fold corners of bookpages to mark them and I wouldn't dream of making notations in the margins)

  7. What a well written and thoughtful post - a real pleasure to read. I have never seen or read Breakfast at Tiffany's but it has always been on my list because it is so iconic. Your description of the narrator/star relationship put me in mind of Brideshead revisited which is predicated on a similar basis.
    Great post - thanks indeed for sharing

  8. I too have never read Breakfast at Tiffany's, thinking that as this is one of the few films with Audrey Hepburn in it that I do not love, the book would hold little interest. This Gatsby comparison is the best reason I've heard to read it anyway. You've given me much to think of, as always. Thanks!

  9. Really enjoyed your thoughts! I'm a huge Gatsby fan and would definitely be curious to see if I had the same reactions to Breakfast At Tiffany's that you did. Despite his place as a mythical literary figure, I've never read anything by Capote!

  10. I recommend both the book and the movie, but for different reasons.


    I don't really see the connection between Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Great Gatsby. I see The Great Gatsby as a cautionary tale about 'the American dream' and Breakfast at Tiffany's (the book) as a sad tale about a woman who will never be happy - and about the kindness of gays.

  11. I've never read this book but love the movie. I think a huge part of my appreciation is Audrey Hepburn's portrayal of Holly. I have yet to read any Capote but I may just skip this one when I do.

  12. I can't believe I missed this post! What a fantastic and thought-provoking blogger you are, Jane! I am like you, I have had this book on my list to read for awhile (still haven't gotten to it). I'm curious as to who was the narrator if not Holly, was it Paul Varjak? I loved your comparison with The Great Gatsby (I read that book anf high school and loved it!) I am a fan of Audrey Hepburn and own this movie.

  13. Yesterday I finished my re-read of Gatsby. Over drinks in the evening, I mentioned to my wife that I saw many similarities between G and B@T, which I have read 3 times. The more I thought about it, the more I began to feel B@T was near to a re-write. So I Googled the topic this morning and came up with this post and the 2009 Guardian article. If you read both books, it is almost impossible to argue they aren't two versions of the same story. Yes - it happens all the time in great literature; but these two share many idiosyncrasies, quirks, structure, background, resolution etc. Fun to think and chat about i!

    1. I had a similar experience--I love The Great Gatsby, and reading Breakfast at Tiffanys reminded me so much of it. Definitely fun to think about.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment, Mark.

  14. Fascinating comparison...I never would have thought of it, but as soon as I saw your heading, I thought "Oh Yes! I can definitely see that" I concur, Capote would never have admitted to it.