Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard's 1938 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion, was one of the best adaptations I have seen. Pygmalion, the film, used most of the dialogue from the play and put a realistic vision on the screen.
As I watched the film, I noticed that most of the dialogue from the play had not been changed from the film. This is very important for an adaptation. The words of Bernard Shaw did not need to be changed for adapting the play to the screen. I believe that changing the dialogue would have hurt the film.
The actors who were use to portray the characters in the film were magnificent. Leslie Howard gave a fabulous performance as Henry Higgins. Howard brought Bernard Shaw's vision of Higgins to life. Leslie Howard looked and acted the part of a professor. Putting Heslie Howard in glasses added to his appearance and realism. Howard not only looked the way I pictured him in the play but acted the part as well.
Wilfred Lawson fit the part of Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father, perfectly. Bernard Shaw created a character in Mr. Doolittle that was to add humor to the play. He was to be a drunk and appear dirty and poor to the audience. Shaw also wanted Mr. Doolittle to appear intelligent as well. Lawson's portrayal of Mr. Doolittle did just that. He added humor and created a perfect adaptation of Bernard Shaw's vision.
Wendy Hiller, in her film debut, brought Eliza Doolittle to life. In the film, as in the play, one could see Eliza change from a common flower girl to a princess. She was able to make the translation from flower girl to princess believable. Her voice and dialogue changes were not sudden but flowed logically from beginning to end.
Col. Pickering, acted by Scott Sunderland, portrayed a gentleman in the film version. In Shaw's play Pickering was a gentleman who treated Eliza with respect. In the film Sunderland did not disappoint. He looked and acted the part. He was gentle and kind in his actions, just as Shaw had written him.
All the actors and actresses fit their parts and adapted their characters wonderfully. Not only the actors fit, but so did the cinematography and set design. The home, plus office, of Higgins was small and cramped, much like most professors' offices. Asquith, and Howard did not try to create an unrealistic version of the play.
Higgins' office and home were not the only things that were not overdone, but also the life style of Higgins was kept in reasonable check. In George Cukor's 1964 My Fair Lady Higgins, was made to seem larger than life. He had a number of servants and liked in a three-story home. This was too much for a phonetics professor. In Pygmalion Higgins had the one housekeeper named Mrs. Pearce, played by Jean Cadell. Just as in the play, Mrs. Pearce was the only person who waited on Higgins. Her character in the play was one who would try and keep Higgins in line. In the film she does just that.
The only real difference between the play and the film was the ending. Bernard Shaw did not want Pygmalion to be a love story. So he did not have Eliza come back to Higgins. Instead he had her run off and marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill. However, Freddy, who was portrayed by David Tree, was depicted as a weak-minded British snob in the film, not exactly how he was portrayed in the play. In the film, Eliza runs off to marry Freddy but returns at the very end to stay with Higgins. This was done because the audience at the time wanted a happy ending with a love story. This small change did not ruin the film in my opinion.
For the most part the film makers adapted the play Pygmalion most effectively. All the actors and actresses fit their roles. The scenes in the film were much like what I had envisioned as I had read the play. Despite a change in the ending, I would still gave this film the Oscar for best adaptation of a play into a film.