Bringing a play to the big screen is far easier than adapting a normal novel, as was demonstrated by George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion and the subsequent 1938 Anthony Asquith-Leslie Howard movie of the same name (for which Shaw also assisted in writing the screenplay). Generally, much is lost even in the shortest of novels, but a play can make its way to the box office with very little hitting the editing room floor.
Pygmalion centered on Eliza Doolittle, a poor girl living in London. She meets a phonetics expert by the name of Professor Higgins and his friend, Colonel Pickering, while selling flowers alongside a road. Eliza speaks in a Cockney dialect, inspiring a bet between Pickering and Higgins as to whether or not she could be taught to speak in proper English.
In both the play as well as the film, Professor Higgins (Leslie Howard in the film) treats Eliza (Wendy Hiller) quite poorly. He refers to her with a number of derogatory labels--from guttersnipe to insect to creature, and so on. Higgins and Pickering (Scott Sunderland) constantly talk badly about her, even in front of her. Higgins treats her as if she was a slave by ordering her around and making various demands of her. He even proclaims that Freddy (David Tree), a suitor who wishes to date Eliza, is basically a bumbling moron with no future. After the ambassador's ball, Higgins even hogs the spotlight by gloating about his job well done and marveling in the fact that he has won the bet, while totally ignoring Eliza and her performance. Needless to say, Eliza snaps toward the end. Higgins and Eliza get into a fight after Higgins' gloating. Eliza returns all the jewelry that she wore to the ball, including a ring that Higgins had bought for her in Brighton. Enraged, Higgins shouts at Eliza and then throws the ring into the fireplace and stops off, slamming the door on his exit. After this comes the only major difference between the play and the movie.
In the play version of Pygmalion, Eliza picks up the ring, looks at it for a moment, and then throws it down onto a table. She then rushes up to her room, grabs up all of her stuff, and leaves. Freddy is waiting for her outside, and they spend the night together. The story ends with Eliza heading off to her father's wedding without Higgins, after another short argument with him the next day; and she seemed to have no interest in returning to him. Instead, it hints toward a future relationship between Eliza and Freddy.
The movie is quite different. After Higgins throws the ring in the fire, Eliza still grabs it up. But in this version, instead of throwing the ring down onto the table, Eliza picks it back up out of the fireplace and returns it to her finger. She still rushes off into the night with Freddy following, but she pretty much gives him the cold shoulder. Freddy is even accosted by a policeman that believes him to be harassing Eliza, and the policeman tells him to leave her alone. Eliza abandons Freddy to visit the street corner in Covent Garden, where she used to sell flowers; and she looks around in what seemed to me to be disgust. It is apparent that she has become used to her new lifestyle as a lady and does not wish to return to her old lifestyle as a common flower girl. The next day, Higgins and Eliza get into another argument, but the fight is not nearly as explosive as the fight in the play. It seems as if the two would probably settle their differences, and it even goes so far as to hint that the two might even marry. This alteration is undoubtedly designed to market the movie to more people, since a happy ending is generally preferred over a cliff-hanger ending.
Despite the differences in the endings, Shaw's play version of Pygmalion and the Asquith-Howard film version follow along with each other very well. Little was cut out, as opposed to book to film adaptations where large chunks of story get left out in order to save time. A play, unlike a book, is meant to be acted out on stage, so the job of
adapting it to the big screen requires little effort. It is easily seen that Pygmalion is a prime example of this fact.