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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
What’s your favorite version of Vanity Fair?
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.
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.
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.
Interesting idea. I think we have our own negative ideas about blondes, not so much as schemers, but willing to use sex to get what they want. So it’s appropriate to cast a brunette.
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.
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. :-)
My first solo movie was Pride & Prejudice (and pigs!) Seems it can be difficult to rope others into seeing period movies at times!
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.
I didn’t because I think that one was reset to contemporary/modern times?
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!
The only one I’ve seen was the 1998 miniseries (can’t believe it’s nearly 20 years old.) I really enjoyed it.
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.
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!
Actually, Reese was also in The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) film as Cecily.
Reese Witherspoon was also in the 2002 version of The Importance of Being Ernest and Return to Lonesome Dove.
I think I’m completely alone in loving the music from the 1998 mini series…
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.
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.
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.
Rhys Ifans as Dobbin was a huge surprise to me in Vanity Fair (2004.) He annoyed the heck out of me in Notting Hill, and I didn’t recognize him at first as Dobbin. Really enjoyed both that version and the Natasha Little version. The 2004 version also has a place in my heart because when I was in Bath I popped into a hotel for tea, and the hotel staff shared their scrapbook of pictures from when they filmed Vanity Fair in town!
2004 Vanity Fair…sigh…that Rawdon. Reese as Becky was everything you describe. And the colors were intensely Indian, yes! The men’s hairstyles were equally divine as the ladies’. I surely love the regency style, and the British East India Company influence.
I DLed the 1967 VF from youtube a long time ago. It’s okay, but Becky is softened too much. Nathaniel Parker from the 90s version was also in a tv version of Far From the Madding Crowd, and the cinema version of Wide Sargasso Sea. He is my favorite Rawdon and my favorite Gabriel Oak. :-D The 1987 VF is really good, though it suffers from the same problems as other uk tv dramas from that period (bad lighting, cheap video, etc.). I got the region 2 DVD from US amazon from a UK seller.
I forgot to mention that there are lots of recycled costumes in all the UK versions of VF, and I’ve already spotted one in the trailer for the new version.
Despite its bad lighting and film quality, I think the 1987 adaptation of “Vanity Fair” is the best version I have seen. And I think Eve Matheson was the best Becky Sharp so far.
Since Susan Hampshire made a lot of Period pieces I think she deserved a WCW she was a great actress in historical fiction and won 3 Emmys for her works
I enjoyed all of the versions listed above, aside from the 1935 adaptation with Miriam Hopkins. Quite awful really. But I think the 1987 miniseries is the best.