Devotees of novelist William Makespeace Thackeray generally don't like the film of Vanity Fair that opened on Sept. 1, despite its gorgeous cinematography, costuming, and sets.
Their irritation comes not because the film jumps around a lot and brings in the Indian sensibility of director Mira Nair: The 1848 book is 900 pages long so the movie needs to move quickly, and Thackeray was born in Calcutta.
Their irritation is not because the film is rated PG-13 for some sensuality/partial nudity and a brief violent image. Thackeray made it clear that protagonist Becky Sharp was sleeping her way to the top.
The essential problem, they say, is that this film makes her more hit upon than hitting. The novel's Becky Sharp is essentially a villainess, preying on the seriously ill and sending men to their deaths. The movie's Becky Sharp is a heroine, a poor but ambitious orphan who does what she has to do. Played by the excellent Reese Witherspoon, she is of course a sympathetic character.
It's not terrible that the movie and the novel have different spins. Thackeray doesn't have all that many readers these days, so it's not as if the film is profiting by false advertising. But the change does reflect our general movement from emphasizing individual character to seeing individuals as stuck within a system and thus not responsible for their actions.
That perspective is helpful in one sense. Class-ridden England and its colonies should not be our model for society. Our modern ideal of romantic love has its problems, but marriages arranged by status-enthralled parents had theirs. And yet, the movie misses Thackeray's insights into vanity by suggesting that we are all dependent on the fairground. Bottom line on the film: Entertaining but shallow