From Page to Screen: Current Film Adaptations Don't Capture the Wit of Thackeray, Waugh, Dubus
Cunneen, Joseph, National Catholic Reporter
The doldrums of summer blockbusters has been punctured by a series of film adaptations of novels by William Makepeace Thackeray, Evelyn Waugh and Andre Dubus.
Vanity Fair, the most expensive, is the least successful despite the engaging presence of Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp. Thackeray's 800-plus pages are crammed into 140 minutes in such a way that we can't follow much of the plotting and fail to realize that the action takes place over 30 years. Mira Nair, the Indian-born director who recently gave us a delightful "Monsoon Wedding," follows Thackeray in reminding us of 19th-century Britain's role in India but stumbles by including a bump-and-grind dance at a party given by British nobility. Even worse, she largely fails to catch the satiric spirit of Thackeray, who constantly reminds us that we are all at least bit players in the pretend world of Vanity Fair.
The nearly impossible job of directing a cinematic "Vanity Fair" is to find an equivalent for Thackeray's amused authorial voice. Nair has assembled a superior cast, including Eileen Atkins as the pseudo-enlightened Matilda Crawley, who at first champions Becky; Bob Hoskins as Pitt Crawley, who hires Becky as governess for his daughters; and Gabriel Byrne, the Marquess of Steyne, the cynical pillar of British society, but the film fails to show the rich comedy of the Victorian social ladder Becky is trying to climb. When Becky secretly marries Matilda's favorite nephew, Rawdon Crawley (James Pureroy), the tyrannical old lady disinherits him, and the movie then proceeds to sentimentalize Becky's situation, making her stormy marriage with Rawdon part of a sudsy romantic drama.
In Thackeray's world, women have only an attenuated role as clinging wives; though the novel is not judgmental, Becky is seen from the start as an unscrupulous manipulator who exploits her role as an orphaned daughter of an impoverished artist and an aristocratic French mother (in reality, an opera dancer). In softening its heroine, the movie succeeds as a wide-ranging costume drama that even includes the battle of Waterloo but is not nearly as funny as its source.
British actor Stephen Fry, long a fan of Evelyn Waugh's early satirical novel Vile Bodies, finally got enough support to bring it to the screen as Bright Young Things, his film debut as director. His problem was somewhat the same as that of Mira Nair with "Vanity Fair," since Waugh's brittle but hilarious dialogue has largely to be jettisoned in a film. Fry makes up for much of this loss as his fast-moving camera pans across the fashionable 1930s haunts of young British sophisticates, its many close-ups exploiting the costumes, colors and uncontrolled movements unfolding before it.
Waugh probably attended some of the parties he savages; Fry is probably less critical and seems primarily amused by his characters' antics, even though their superficiality is evident from the start. The minimal plot, which often zooms out of control, centers on Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), an impoverished young man who has written a novel, Bright Young Things, which passes judgment on the excesses of his contemporaries. But the book is confiscated by a customs agent at Dover, and Adam is left penniless. He survives by becoming a gossip columnist for a high-handed Canadian press lord (Dan Aykroyd). …