“This is Vanity Fair, where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”
The tagline from the latest television adaptation of Vanity Fair illustrates why it is a perfect tale for today. Released late last year from Amazon Studios, and available for streaming with Amazon Prime, this seven-part series based on William Thackeray’s 19th-century novel should delight those with a taste for human folly. It features the most charming adaptation of a classic female antihero since Lady Susan in Love and Friendship, plus an outstanding supporting cast.
Vanity Fair is a classic because it is a tale of its time that is also for all time, including ours. The spiritual marketplace from which the novel takes its name never goes out of business, it just remodels. Before there were excellent documentaries on the fiasco of the Fyre Festival, a massively hyped “luxury” music festival that ended in failure and fraud, there was Vanity Fair. Before being an Instagram model or a social media “influencer” were careers, there was Vanity Fair.
This story without a hero follows Rebecca Sharp as she makes her way through English society at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. Becky is poor, orphaned, and of low birth, but she is also clever, pretty, and unscrupulous. She begins alongside her friend, Amelia Sedley, who, though not her equal in brains or worldliness, has the advantages of wealth, consequence, and kindness.
To tell how these two young women fare would be…spoilers. Suffice it to say that there are marriages, battles, betrayals, births, deaths, reversals in fortune, and enough character sketches and plot twists to make a dramatic period piece. This version is fairly true to the book, and often impresses with how well it incorporates details from the novel, including many of its best lines.
It also impresses with its budget. Television costume dramas too often consist almost entirely of characters talking indoors; here, there are plenty of sumptuous crowd, location, and outdoor shots, and the filmmakers even have a game attempt at portraying parts of the Battle of Waterloo.
It is a grand tale. Is it a morality tale? Perhaps. The reference to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress may be lost on many modern viewers, but Thackeray’s novel is accessible regardless. And yet it is ambiguous. All sorts of readings could be given to it—liberal, reactionary, Marxist, feminist, and so on.
How much should we blame Becky for sins committed in her attempts to scramble up a social ladder rigged against her? She is not the worst character in the story, and it is possible to imagine her having been less wicked had her abilities not been handicapped by the cultural denigration of her class and sex. She might have been better if she found it easier to attain status and security; she might have been very good on a better income. Becky may be seen as a victim of the age—unjustly kept down by birth and sex when her talents merited much more.
Or perhaps the Becky Sharps of this world will be with us always, driven by endless desire and heedless of those they harm. After all, Vanity Fair never runs out of prizes to lust after, and it is still common for those with brains and beauty to be greedy for more even after acquiring much. The quest for status and positional goods still animates Vanity Fair, even in an age of far greater affluence than that of Thackeray and his characters. Many of our leaders, moguls, and celebrities seem at home there.
Thus, Vanity Fair will always be more than a period piece, and good adaptations will always be of interest. In this case the casting was excellent, with the selections of the primary characters not only holding fairly true to the book’s descriptions, but also lending emphasis to character traits and contrasts. In the book, the narrator offers a good deal of commentary; on screen, he has a much-reduced role, which is for the best, as he would have been intrusive.
There were a few missteps in this otherwise excellent adaptation. The writers chose to hint at the final fate of Becky and Jos, abandoning the book’s explicit account. The musical choices are maddening, as terrible covers of good songs were repeatedly chosen. For example, “All Along the Watchtower” would have been a good accompaniment to the opening of each episode had a less insipid version been selected; “Love Will Tear Us Apart” would have been a great choice to close one episode, had the producers stuck with the original Joy Division recording.
Nonetheless, this production is worth watching. Among its greatest virtues is that it avoids a scourge of modern costume drama—turning the characters into moderns playing dress-up. Nothing ruins period pieces so much as characters with thought patterns and values that are reflections of our own preoccupations. Thankfully, the characters in this adaptation are believable as inhabitants of their time and culture, rather than denizens of ours.
Presenting Vanity Fair on its own terms does not make it obscure; rather, it highlights the aspects of the characters and story that illustrate permanent features of the human condition. The vices and temptations of Vanity Fair are still with us: envy and avarice, lust and resentment, and, of course, vanity.
Becky Sharp was, in ability, the equal of any lady in the land of Vanity Fair, and she was embittered by her lowly station and the obstacles to improving it. But had she been wiser, she might have realized how few of the prizes of Vanity Fair are worth the pursuit—a salutary reminder for us all, in this age of envy and Instagram.
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