Frock Flicks Guide to Vanity Fair on Screen

21

Yep, there’s a new Vanity Fair in the works — a TV miniseries being produced by ITV and set to come out next year. It seems like a good time to do a round-up on the major film/TV adaptations, and look at the one that’s coming out soon, so we can ask the proverbial question: do we need yet another adaptation of this classic novel?

 

Vanity Fair: The Original Novel

The novel was written by William Makepeace Thackeray and published as a serial from 1847-48. The title is a reference to Bunyan’s novel Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the pilgrim visits a town holding a neverending fair that represents the sin of being attached to worldly goods.

The time period is very obvious, since the Battle of Waterloo (1815) is a key event about halfway through the novel.

The lead character is Becky (Rebecca) Sharp, the consummate anti-heroine long before Scarlett O’Hara. Her mother was an opera girl, her father was a poor painter. When her father dies, she ends up teaching French in a finishing school, where she meets Amelia Sedley, daughter of a rich merchant. The two girls’ lives intertwine from then on. The plot is waaaay too convoluted to summarize here, but know that Amelia is sweetness personified, falls in love with a jerk, her family loses all her money, and in the end she finally finds love. Meanwhile Becky starts off scrappy and poor, marries and causes her husband (Rawdon) to lose his inheritance, gets involved with a married aristocrat and screws that (and her marriage) up, and finally in the end makes good financially. The key thing to keep in mind is her character really is heartless — she’s after position and money, and she doesn’t care who she crawls over to get it. She’s also a prime manipulator.

 

Becky Sharp (1935), film

This is the Cliffs Notes version — it hits the highlights of the story but skips much of the detail. It’s mostly notable for being the first full-color feature film. The tone is very comic.

Becky Sharp (1935)

Miriam Hopkins plays Becky as a mostly-comic character with occasional flashes of emotion.

Becky Sharp (1935)

Alan Mowbray is a boring and milquetoast Rawdon Crawley.

Becky Sharp (1935)

Amelia (Frances Dee) barely registers — she’s a snoozefest.

Becky Sharp (1935)

The costumes were designed by Robert Edmond Jones who was primarily a Broadway costume designer. They’re super 1930s-ified — lots of 1930s silhouettes with bonnets and Empire-waist seams.

 

Vanity Fair (1967), TV miniseries

The first of many BBC miniseries, and the first of their drama serials to be shot in color. I haven’t seen it myself, but I can tell you it’s gotten (two whole) positive reviews over on IMDB.

1967 Vanity Fair

Susan Hampshire (The Forsyte Saga 1967, The First Churchills 1969, The Pallisers 1974) played Becky.

1967 Vanity Fair

Dyson Lovell played Rawdon. Lovell had done a few acting jobs before this, but went on to be a producer.

1967 Vanity Fair

Marilyn Taylerson was Amelia. Taylerson’s only other historical costume movie credit is Middlemarch (1968).

1967 Vanity Fair

The costumes were designed by Joan Ellacott, who also designed The Forsyte Saga (1967), The First Churchills (1969), Emma (1972), Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), Anna Karenina (1977), Pride and Prejudice (1980), and The Lady and the Highwayman (1989).

1967 Vanity Fair

That’s a lot of pink … and a LOT of hair!

 

Vanity Fair (1987), TV miniseries

Another BBC miniseries, another I haven’t seen. According to at least one IMDB reviewer, this is the most faithful to the novel of all the adaptations.

1987 Vanity Fair

Eve Matheson (left) played Becky. She was also in Jane Eyre (1983) and Call the Midwife (2014). Rebecca Saire (right) played Amelia. Saire was also in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015).

1987 Vanity Fair

Jack Klaff (left) played Rawdon. He was also in Ivanhoe (1997).

1987 Vanity Fair

The costumes were designed by Joyce Hawkins, and this is her last credit on IMDB. She also designed The Old Curiosity Shop (1979-80), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982).

 

Vanity Fair (1998), TV miniseries

Finally, another I’ve seen! I would say this is actually a great adaptation — good casting, stays close to the original story, the costumes are one of the many well-done 1990s Regency’s — except for the music. Oh god, the music. I did finally manage to watch this on my third try, but tries one and two were aborted because of the music.

1998 Vanity Fair

Natasha Little played Becky. You’ll recognize her as Lady Jane Sheepshanks (wife of Sir Pitt) in the 2004 feature film adaptation, as well as Liz Cromwell in Wolf Hall (2015).

1998 Vanity Fair

Frances Grey played Amelia. She hasn’t done any other notable historic costume projects.

1998 Vanity Fair

Rawdon was played by Nathaniel Parker, who was also in Bleak House (2005) and Land Girls (2009).

1998 Vanity Fair

And I have to add that Tom Ward played George Osborne. I always recognize him as Lt. Chamberlayne from Pride and Prejudice (1995); he also was in The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders (1996) and played Col. Fitzwilliam in Death Comes to Pemberley (2013).

1998 Vanity Fair

The costumes were designed by Rosalind Ebbutt, whose work you definitely know from The Buccaneers (1995), Emma (2009), Downton Abbey (season 2, 2011), and Victoria (2016-17).

1998 Vanity Fair

They’re very well done, straightforward Regency styles.

1998 Vanity Fair

You’ve got your spencers and pelisses and your boys in military uniforms.

 

Vanity Fair (2004), film

This adaptation was directed by Indian director Mira Nair, and she put a definite Indian spin on things … which actually worked really well! She also chose to try to humanize Becky, so she’s a bit more of a sympathetic character. Although purists may quibble with that decision, I thought it brought some depth and dimension to the film … and I loved the stylized, Indian-influenced costumes.

2004 Vanity Fair

Reese Witherspoon played the sympathetic version of Becky. She’s very much a contemporary actress — her only other period credit is Water for Elephants (2011) — but she did a great job in my opinion.

2004 Vanity Fair

Romola Garai played Amelia, and while I still find the character too wimpy, I liked what she did with it. Garai is a costume movie veteran, starring in Daniel Deronda (2002), The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005), Amazing Grace (2006), Emma (2009), The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), and Suffragette (2015).

Vanity Fair (2004)

MY BOYFRIEND James Purefoy played the hottest, swaggeriest Rawdon EVAH. Purefoy has also heated things up in Mansfield Park (1999), Beau Brummell (2006), Rome (2005-7), Camelot (2011), and Roots (2016).

2004 Vanity Fair

And, yes, Jonathan Rhys Meyers was well cast as icky sleazy George.

2004 Vanity Fair

Beatrix Aruna Pasztor was the costume designer. The only other period film she’s done is Great Expectations (2012), where the actresses sported similarly 10-years-too-late (but fabulous) hairstyles. Coincidence?

2004 Vanity Fair

Pasztor really bumped up the Indian element to Regency fashion. Check out JRM in a silk taffeta military uniform — totally not the “right” fabric if you were being period accurate, but it adds a certain something. Also note the color scheme and the Indian shawls…

2004 Vanity Fair

Everything was really stylized, especially the hair.

 

Vanity Fair (2018), TV miniseries

And now we come to the current production — a TV miniseries being filmed by ITV (with Amazon Studios; it will air on Amazon Prime in the U.S.). The series is being written by Gwyneth Hughes, who did the screenplays for Miss Austen Regrets (2008) and Dark Angel (2016).

Vanity Fair (2018)

Olivia Cooke will play Becky.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Her only historical credit so far is The Limehouse Golem (2016).

Their Finest (2016)

Claudia Jessie (seen here in Their Finest from 2016; she also had the small role of “Mary” in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, 2016) will play Amelia.

Vanity Fair 2018

Tom Bateman will play Rawdon.

Da Vinci's Demons

You may recognize him as Giuliano Medici from Da Vinci’s Demons (2013-14)…

Jekyll & Hyde 2015

The lead role in Jekyll & Hyde (2015)…

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)Tom Bateman

And most recently as M. Bouc, the rich train director in Murder on the Orient Express (2017).

Other important cast members include MICHAEL FRICKIN’ PALIN (Monty Python) as Thackeray himself (I guess there will be some narration?), Suranne Jones (The Crimson Field) as Miss Pinkerton, and Frances de la Tour (Yvette in The Collection 2016, Mother Hildegarde in Outlander, and Aunt Western in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling 1997) as the rich and elderly aunt Matilda Crawley.

The costume designer hasn’t yet been announced, but filming has begun in Budapest and London, and we have a teeny tiny peek at what’s coming:

Vanity Fair (2018)

Here’s Becky and Rawdon filming on location in Deal, England.

Vanity Fair (2018)

Another view of the same two leads. LOVE Becky’s ridiculous hat!

Vanity Fair (2018)

And what are presumably extras.

 

What’s your favorite version of Vanity Fair?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

21 Responses

  1. MoHub

    Stop making Becky anything but blond! Thackeray’s whole point was to overturn the convention that blonds were angels, and brunettes were schemers, and he constantly reminds the reader how pale Becky is. And don’t even get me started on the conventions regarding redheads! Making Becky a brunette or redhead is totally against what Thackeray was getting at.

    Vanity Fair is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I’ve yet to find anyone who’s done it justice.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrece

      Absolutely agree about the blond-versus-brunette! Becky is not even that pretty, but charming and sexy and hard as nails; in the novel she says something to the effect of “I’ve been a woman since I was 10 years old.” (Having had to take care of her feckless father, etc.) V.F. is great, and I should reread it again.

      Reply
      • MoHub

        I’ve read it at least four times. Also love Thackeray’s illustrations and his explanation as to why he didn’t dress his characters in authentic Regency clothing.

        Reply
  2. Sarah F

    The 2004 film will always hold a special place in my heart, simply because it was the first movie I ever went to alone.
    I had just graduated high school, and going to the movies by myself felt pathetic. But since no one else wanted to see it, I amped myself up and smuggled an entire hoagie into my local 2 screen theater.
    I remember worrying whether people were looking at me and thinking I was a looser because I was there alone (Ah, the narcissism of teenagers) but soon I was lost in the story, and halfway through the film I had the sudden realization that I was having fun! I could go places and have fun by myself! WOAH!
    I’ve never read the book or seen any other adaptation, so I can’t speak for accuracy, but I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

    Reply
    • Kristine

      Thank you for the reminder to do this again, Sarah F! I used to love going to movies alone and but haven’t for years. My first was Becomming Jane and I’ll always love it for that too. :-)

      Reply
      • Megan

        My first solo movie was Pride & Prejudice (and pigs!) Seems it can be difficult to rope others into seeing period movies at times!

        Reply
  3. thestoryenthusiast

    You didn’t mentioning the 1932 version starring Myrna Loy. But it was excruciating to watch so no loss there. I’m really looking forward to the new series. Though I love a good anti-heroine (a la Scarlett O’Hara), I just haven’t been able to get interested in Becky Sharp.

    Reply
  4. Kate D

    I love the 2004 Vanity Fair movie. I’ll have to watch some of these other adaptations. The book has been on my to read list for years (I even started it once, but had to return it to the library before I got very far), maybe I’ll bump it up in priority!

    I started reading War and Peace after laughing along with your hilarious snarky posts about the BBC miniseries and now I’m over 80% of the way through the book. It’s a delight! Such a fun read!

    Reply
  5. kt

    The only one I’ve seen was the 1998 miniseries (can’t believe it’s nearly 20 years old.) I really enjoyed it.

    Reply
  6. Saraquill

    Alas, when I think of “Vanity Fair,” I’m reminded of another book I read and was too irritated to finish. Reading it was a minor plot point in “The Story of Lucy Galt,” a novel too focused on tragedy to the point of absurdity.

    Reply
  7. Bronwyn M Benson

    I really love the 2004 movie. It’s where I discovered Romola Garai and now I adore her. I love the Indian elements to the costumes. The music at the beginning with the sung version of “She Walks in Beauty”. … I could go on. It’s so good!

    Reply
  8. SaucyMarla

    Actually, Reese was also in The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) film as Cecily.

    Reply
  9. broughps

    Reese Witherspoon was also in the 2002 version of The Importance of Being Ernest and Return to Lonesome Dove.

    Reply
  10. ctrent29

    I’ve seen the 1935 version with Miriam Hopkins. Major disappointment. I’ve also seen the 1998 version with Natasha Little (first-rate, except for the bombastic music). And I’ve seen the 2004 version with Reese Witherspoon, which I also found enjoyable.

    Reply
    • Janette

      NO. I loved it too. I think it captured the essence of the story. I was not surprised at all to see it was written by Murray Gold who also does the music for Dr Who. (which I also love) but his music is definitely not to everyone’s taste.

      Reply
  11. elizacameron

    I’ve seen the Eve Matheson version, the Natasha Little version and the Reese Witherspoon version which I love because I adore James Purefoy who is totally smoking in it. I have to say that I’m amazed that they didn’t cast James Norton in this version since he seems to be in everything.

    Reply
  12. MoHub

    The Susan Hampshire miniseries wasn’t bad, although it generated my first “Becky should not be a redhead!” rant, and the Dobbin was far too good-looking. I always fall back on Thackeray’s original illustrations for my ideal images of how the characters should look.

    Reply

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