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Pygmalion Play Versus Film: Opinion Essay

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In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, there are a plethora of notions that form a clear distinction between the original written play and the 1938 film production. In this play, there are two accounts that are placed in Elizas hands that give her the difficult option of whether to pursue an intimate relationship with the poor boy Freddy, as depicted in the original play, or to stay chained to Higgins side forever, of which is represented in the film production. Although the original writing of the play is better as it is, the 1938 film adaption presents a different, yet intriguing medium that boosts the tension between the characters and even helps the audience visualize the characters true personas. The vast majority of the film aligns with the written play and it was produced successfully to inhabit many themes. Both the film and written play show the audience that not only did Higgins turn Eliza into a woman of high class and status, but he also ripped away the independence that she once inhabited; even though that independence was being a poor flower girl on the streets.

In this time period, women learned how to value their individuality over the needs of others; including men. Bernard Shaw wrote this play during an extremely vital time in the history of women’s rights. Women all over the United States were beginning to search for their own freedom and have feminist view points. Women had a lack of place in society and it was extremely frustrating at the time. During the Twentieth Century, World War I was taking place and there was a need for women to take on jobs while their husbands were off fighting in the war. This was the first instance of women proving their independence from the grasp of men by going to find jobs that would further help them provide for their families, instead of sitting at home taking care of the house. Not only did this spark a fire in women all over the nation, but it put a yearning to find their rights to work and vote. Later on in 1920, women slowly received the right to vote and furthermore ignited the rise of feminism throughout the United States. Throughout Pygmalion, the audience can feel and visualize the effects of the characters finding their independence, specifically through the character of Eliza. Even so, the audience can also witness the dominance and power of control that is portrayed through Mr. Higgins.

Eliza carries an abundance of roles throughout the play, but it can be proven that her main role is to empower women to find their independence and to break away from the strong grip of dominant men. At the beginning of the play, she is known as a poor flower girl, of whom has no education and therefore cannot speak intelligently. Even though she has some poor qualities, she contains the power of quick wit and can strongly stand up for herself. In the film, the audience can see how she stands up for herself when she notices a man taking notes about the things that she says (0:7:13). After she lowers the dignity that she has for herself, she allows Higgins to help her with phonetics and to make her into a woman of high class and authority. Even though she is receiving an education and bettering herself, Higgins is slowly taking away her independence and her original personality. Eliza is then placed in a situation where she either has to marry someone or she stays alone having no means of providing for herself. Thus, Higgins indirectly limited her opportunities and talent, which has made her ultimately dependent on men. Eliza admits to Higgins that, “I tried to get back into the old way with her; but it was no use…Well, I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours” (Act 5, Line 311-315). Her realization of being held captive emotionally and mentally by Higgins allows her to have a sudden breakthrough. It isn’t until she has this realization towards the end of the play that she comes to the conclusion that she has to break away from his grip that is slowly strangling her feminist qualities out of her and changing her character as a whole. In the written play, Eliza strives to portray her independence by leaving Higgins and to inform women that a man doesn’t define oneself. On the other hand, the film production shows how Eliza loses power in her character by crawling back to Higgins and his dominance over her. Even though it was of her free will, she still has her power sucked away from her. The ending of the film production strips one of the main themes, independence, away from the original play.

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Although there are different opinions on the film adaption of Pygmalion, it provided the theatre play to be seen in a new light that is beneficial to the characters and the overarching theme. The majority of the film highlighted and brought to life the qualities of the characters, but there are subtle changes in the film that have altered the entire tone of the original story. In the film production, the audience sees a much more complex side of the array of characters. The film contains more comedy than the play, whereas the written play places the character’s in a more happy disposition. The film depicts a more mischievous side in Eliza and a more domineering side in Higgins. Even so, the film allows the audience to witness the mental instability of Eliza when she tells Higgins that he does not own her anymore. She becomes the dominant character by saying that she was going to leave him and use what he taught her to gain money for herself. The film allows her to put off an “insane” vibe before she leaves him to go with Freddy. (1:31:15). Although this is a great scene, it does not allow the audience to visualize the internal battle that she is going through. The persistent belittling that is thrown at Eliza by Higgins is what caused her to go slightly insane. The actress who is portraying Eliza attempts to make her seem unstable and lowly throughout the entire film. The audience only sees her independence a handful of times. The actor of whom plays Mr. Higgins attempts to portray a more dominant and selfish character than the written play succumbs to. Higgins’ arrogance and pride is more visual throughout the film, but he also portrays a certain sexual tension that is not noticed as much through the original written play. This sexual tension can be felt by the audience and it makes the storyline much more interesting and intense. By allowing there to be sexual tension between Eliza and Mr. Higgins, it makes the scene much more enthralling and allows the audience to see the real reason behind the dominant and submissive attitudes from both characters that is portrayed throughout the entire film. It even allows there to be a much bigger visual for the chase that is happening between Eliza and Higgins. Higgins enjoys chasing after Eliza and begging for her to stay at the end, but Eliza also gets a high off of being chased and even teased. The longing that the two characters have for each other is portrayed so well and it lightens up the tone of the play as well.

Through the years, there have been at least four different adaptions of Pygmalion. Each of the different incarnations of the play make great use of the opportunities that come with the mediums presented. The majority of these adaptions were kept true to the original literature, but there are some differences; specifically with the 1964 production of My Fair Lady. This production was based off of the original play and is largely similar in plot and character choice to the film and original play. Although they are similar, the musical mutilated the characters’ personalities and purposes into completely bipolar things. The musical made the characters more humorous than originally intended, but even took away Eliza’s main focus of independence. The musical also allowed for Eliza and Higgins to fall in love, whereas this belittled the characterization of Eliza. It strengthened Higgins character and made Eliza look submissive and ditsy. Although this is a different version from the film production and the written play, it allows for a different viewpoint to what Bernard Shaw was trying to convey originally.

In conclusion, the film production and original written play both finish with great emotional distance between its two protagonists. The audience witnesses a transition of a poor girl with an aspiration to become a respected woman to an intelligent woman with little to no independence. Whether there is an affectionate reconciliation between the two characters or a bitter farewell, the original meaning of the play remains the same and the story line still shows a transformation of the characters.

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Pygmalion Play Versus Film: Opinion Essay. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
“Pygmalion Play Versus Film: Opinion Essay.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
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