Pages to Screen: Light in the Piazza (1962)

As soon as I started reading the book, I could see the story playing out in my head just as it does in the movie.

When Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella “Light in the Piazza” was adapted for film, the movie is nearly identical to the original printed word. This doesn’t often happen.

In the opening pages, Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara explore a piazza. Clara loses her hat causing her to meet Fabrizio — just like in the film.

From page one, this Italian love story was a much needed respite after finishing Glendon Swarthout’s book “Where the Boys Are.”

The book “Light in the Piazza” was a turning point in the career of Mississippi-born author, Elizabeth Spencer; featuring many firsts for her. It was her first novel not set in her home state of Mississippi, and it was her first book that featured a female protagonist.


“The way I was brought up. It was considered that men did all the interesting things out in the world and women were pretty much reduced to a domestic pattern or minor careers,” Spencer was quoted in her Washington Post obituary. “The whole idea of a woman in the arts must have horrified my family at first.”

The novella and film follow Winston-Salem, N.C., natives Margaret Johnson and her grown daughter Clara on a trip to Florence, Italy. Unbeknownst to most people is that Clara had an accident when she was a child. She was kicked in the head by her pony, and though Clara is 26, she still acts like she is 10 years old. While in Florence, the Johnsons meet Fabrizio, who is drawn to Clara and woos him. Clara also falls in love with Fabrizio. The romance brings Margaret to dream about Clara’s future and if she can have an adult, married life.

light in the piazza3

Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux as Margaret and Clara Johnson in “Light in the Piazza.”

Spencer traveled in Italy as a part of the Guggenheim Fellowship, and then traveled to Canada. She later said that as she watched the snow in Canada, she started thinking of the light in Italy that she described as “the sense that everything is clear and visible, that nothing is withheld.”

“A work written under great compulsion, while I was under the spell of Italy,” she said. “But it took me, all told, about a month to write.”

While the setting is in Italy, Spencer still focuses on southern roots while having the Johnson family hail from North Carolina. The setting and the characters make for a study of two cultures and mannerisms giving “clear pictures of both without taking sides,” Louis Dollarhide wrote in his Clarion-Ledger review, published on Nov. 20, 1960.

Spencer’s “Light in the Piazza” was a success, selling two million dollars and was made into a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film in 1962. Olivia de Havilland starred as Margaret Johnson and Yvette Mimieux as her daughter Clara. George Hamilton played Fabrizio with Rossano Brazzi as his father.

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Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, George Hamilton and Yvette Mimieux in the film version of LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA.

This is a favorite film of mine, so I was pleased that the film and the movie were so similar. Mimieux is perfect at playing a childlike adult, doing little things like playing while she’s walking or blowing into her straw to shoot the paper wrapper off across the table.

The film features a gorgeous, sweeping score by Mario Nascimbene. Filmed on location in Italy, cinematographer Otto Heller beautifully captures the light and beauty of Florence and Rome. Not to mention, Mimieux wears gorgeous dresses by Dolly Smith and de Havilland wears Dior frocks.

The film is lovely and reflects the novel well, staying fairly true to the written word. However, there are a few differences:
• In the book, Margaret only thinks about her husband Noel’s reactions and the two talk on the phone. The book version of Noel stays in the United States. In the film, Noel (played by Barry Sullivan) flies to Italy to evaluate the situation. Sullivan’s Noel is slightly softer in the film than the book, which describes him as extremely well-planned and traditional to a fault.
• Margaret has a grown son, who isn’t mentioned in the movie.
• In the film, Margaret hires a tutor for Clara for teaching and companionship. The tutor isn’t in the book.
• In the film, Rossano Brazzi follows his son where he’s having dinner with the Johnsons so he can meet the American mother and daughter. They meet differently in the book.

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Yvette Mimieux with Elizabeth Spencer’s novel.

While these are differences, none of them are earthshattering. Since the book is primarily told through Margaret’s point of view, the film’s addition of Noel coming in person and the tutor allowed some of the conversations to be told that are shared by Margaret’s narration in the book.

Elizabeth Spencer later said she was surprised by the success of “Light in the Piazza,” and at one point calling it an “albatross,” according to her obituary in the New Yorker.

Later, in 2005, “Light in the Piazza” was adapted into a Broadway play, which ran for 504 performances and won six Tony Awards.

While Spencer had varying views about the success of “Light in the Piazza,” and felt her other books were better (such as “The Voice at the Back Door”), she also noted later that it helped her develop her writing.

“I think this work has great charm,” Spencer later said. “It probably is the real thing.”

This article is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the Past.

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