Do It Yourself: George Bernard Shaw’s Adaptation of Pygmalion

         After watching every film in this semester's course, I have seen some good adaptations (Elia Kazan's 1951 version of Tennessee Williams' 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, Jack Clayton's 1961 The Innocents, based on Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw) and some bad adaptations (William Wyler's 1939 Wuthering Heights, based on Emily Brontë's 1847 novel, Joseph Losey's 1973 version of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 A Doll's House), but it took the adaptation skills of the original author himself to be the best. George Bernard Shaw's screenplay for Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard's 1938 film adaptation of Pygmalion (1913) is far and away the most loyal to the original work, and that makes the difference.

         Either in sheer vanity or simple stubbornness, Shaw deviates little from the original in this treatment of his 1913 play. Not only this, but all parties involved are able to take his material and capture the essence of the original play. When you watch the film, it is the play you see on the screen.

         Leslie Howard, in a dual role as co-director and lead character Henry Higgins, clearly understands the work and chooses to play Higgins as a foppish, self-aggrandizing, hilarious old bachelor. He does not go over the top in the way Rex Harrison does in My Fair Lady, filmed in 1964 by George Cukor and also based on Shaw's play.

         Wendy Hiller plays Eliza just ridiculously enough so that her transition to "fair lady" is appropriately wowing. Scott Sunderland, as George Pickering, is a great straight man to Howard, while Alfred Doolittle (Wilfrid Lawson) is sufficiently madcap and not given too much screen time as he is, as played by Stanley Holloway, in My Fair Lady.

         The sets captures the play's moods as well. Higgins' flat feels scholarly and lived-in, as it should. The ball feels as though it should be in an adaptation of Cinderella--very storybook.

         All in all, Howard and Asquith's vision of this play is really flawless, and I think this is indebted to Shaw being given the chance to adapt his great work himself.

John Null

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