For a hundred fifty years we've honored William Makepeace Thackeray's novel "Vanity Fair" as one of the seminal works in all literature. It is a clear-eyed portrait of British society in the early years of the nineteenth century, with details of texture and observation that even Dickens could not surpass, but more than that it gives us in Becky Sharp, its picaresque heroine, a woman who might be our own wife or sister or lover - to our and her dismay. And we should honor it also as the first great work of irony in the art form. Thackeray used Becky as a literary wedge into the world he wrote about, but he brought her to exciting and profound life as a human being; she moves us and we identify with her even as she repels us.
Now Mira Nair, the director of "Salaam Bombay" and "Monsoon Wedding," two wonderful films about contemporary India, has tried her hand at filming the novel, with the American Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp; but Nair has ended up with something that's a cross between a Cliffs' Notes and "Legally Blonde 3." Where the novel revels in the cross-currents of life and relationships in Becky's world, set over a period of thirty years, this film does little more than dip in and out of moments in Becky's life, from childhood to near middle age. She is the willful child of an impecunious painter, then she is the governess to the children of a minor country noble, then she is - well, unlike the novel, she is the bright and pretty woman who is courted, snubbed, married to an officer, snubbed again, victimized by his gambling, pauperized, widowed and more. In other words, she is nothing like the Becky of the novel, who if nothing else made her own way, victimized others, lived by her own decisions, and paid whatever price was exacted. Where the novel is complex the film is shallow. Where the novel is perspicacious about life and motivations, the film has only the thinnest of views.
In my view the great novels, if they are to be translated to film at all, require much more time than even a two-hour-and-twenty-minute film can give. They need time to breathe, to set the emotional traps that hook us into caring for everything that happens, to allow us to live in their world, to be a part of it, without rushing us through from end to end. And here is where this film fails. It is pretty, it is beautifully set, but it has no center. I don't want to be mean, but its Becky is just Elle Woods writ large. And that is not the novel.
I don't think this is Witherspoon's fault. She is always at least adequate to the role, and the rest of the cast - particularly Eileen Atkins as the aging Matilda Crawley - is fine. But there's no meat on the bones of the film. Events happen without the antecedents that Thackeray was kind enough to give us in the novel, so they lack any dramatic impact. We want to give ourselves to the film but neither the script nor the direction are much help. Those who see the film but have not read the novel should not be blamed if they question what all the fuss has been about; this "Vanity Fair" plays like an abbreviated version of "Masterpiece Theatre," and not a very good one at that.