There’s something wonderfully delicious about a large-budget Hollywood production of Vanity Fair–the 19th-century novel whose aim was to skewer a self-important class that reveled in its own preening excess and adhered to its own inverted version of morality. One can easily imagine where, if he were writing today, William Makepeace Thackeray might have chosen to set his social satire.
Unfortunately, Thackeray was not the screenwriter for this latest adaptation of Vanity Fair: That honor (or dishonor, as the case may be) went to Julian Fellowes, the scribe responsible for 2001’s highly overrated snoozer, Gosford Park.
In 1848, when Thackeray published his indictment of high society, his anti-heroine Becky Sharp–a half-French, half-English orphan girl whose intellect and ambition enable her to conquer the formidable class system of aristocratic England–had bite to spare. Today, barely a baby tooth remains in her lovely heart-shaped mouth.
An immediate literary sensation, Becky Sharp was the Scarlett O’Hara of her day. Conventional wisdom even has it that Margaret Mitchell drew her inspiration for Mrs. O’Hara-Hamilton-Kennedy-Butler from Thackeray, and it speaks to his talent as an artistic pioneer that nearly 100 years later, Mitchell toned down the ruthless nature of the character that allegedly inspired her.
More conniving, self-involved, and callous than the southern belle ever fiddle-dee-dreamed of, Becky moved far beyond the realm of mere social climber: She was, in the words of the new film starring Reese Witherspoon, “a mountaineer.” But while this line is a fair description of Thackeray’s Becky–a woman who disdained both her husband and her child–it doesn’t come close to describing her cinematic incarnation. Instead, it seems as if Focus Films was intent on returning Mitchell’s favor, toning down Scarlett O’Hara to offer us a much duller Becky Sharp.
Though visually stunning, director Mira Nair’s abridged tale never engages. We don’t connect with the characters because their true motivations–in all their ugly, selfish glory–aren’t allowed to shine through. Instead of Thackeray’s “serpent of a governess” who cheerfully commits adultery and eventually murder to achieve her soaring aims, Nair gives us a modestly ambitious maiden who only wants every woman wants–a little financial security.
The costumes and settings are beautifully executed, and the supporting cast, including a lovably randy Bob Hoskins, keeps the film from becoming unbearably boring. But by taking away her character’s fundamental corruption, Nair relegates a very capable Reese Witherspoon to the same roles she’s played in most of her films–that of clotheshorse.
Witherspoon certainly looks seductive in scenes inspired by Nair’s native India, but the ultimate theme of such sequences, including a Bollywood-esque dance, is “the girl can’t help it.” She doesn’t mean to seduce anyone. So unlike the “real” Becky Sharp, Witherspoon’s character tends to be a bit confused when her best friend’s husband propositions her and when her aristocratic benefactor forces her to make good on her flirtation.
Thackeray’s title was a reference to the classic Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan’s work, Vanity Fair was a physical manifestation of the emptiness of wealth and pleasure described by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1: 2. Becky Sharp was crafted to be the fictional fulfillment of Solomon’s wisdom: She spends her life and her honor chasing meaningless decadence.
What a pity that this is a theme the filmmakers seem incapable of grasping. With (presumably) unintentional irony, Nair makes her leading lady some kind of plucky feminist hero, and in so doing gives us a Becky that is much weaker and less clever than her literary counterpart. Sure, she’s pretty to look at, but nothing truly enticing lurks beneath the surface. The story remains, as Thackeray subtitled it, one “Without a Hero,” but by removing the very villainousness of his villain, Nair also removes any reason for us to be interested in her.
“What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world…greedy pompous mean perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior virtue,” Thackeray wrote to his mother about Vanity Fair. Nair should have left that aim intact. He may be dead for over a century, but Thackeray is clearly a writer who understands modern show business.
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.