Amazon's 'Vanity Fair' Offers a Thoroughly Modern Becky Sharp

(Credit: Mammoth Screen for ITV via Amazon Studios)

Amazon's new adaptation of Vanity Fair aims to get with the times. It doesn't always work.

In this time of reboots and remakes, Vanity Fair was bound to come around again. The orginial novel, by William Thackeray, was published in the 1840s, the period piece nature and the satire of those who strive for an upper-class life fits in perfectly to the current trends in TV. Moreover, unlike other recent adaptations like The Woman in White and Little Women, Vanity Fair isn't well-trod ground. The story was popular in the 1920s and 30s, there are no less than six films made between 1911 and 1935. But the story then was left for dead until 2004 when Reese Witherspoon decided she wanted a crack at the character in the center of it, Becky Sharp. The BBC has made a few serials out of it, but most never crossed the pond, and the last one was in the 1990s. 

One of the reasons Vanity Fair hasn't been popular is due to how unlikable the main character is. (The book's subtitle, "A Novel Without A Hero," is not kidding around.) For generations, the idea of putting an unlikable character at the center of a story in films was unthinkable. It was only in the last decade the rise of the "anti-hero" on television changed this perspective, and it's only been the last couple of years this "anti-hero" status has been granted to female protagonists on TV. Therefore, it should surprise no one ITV thought it was time to bring back Vanity Fair for a new generation. Finally, Becky is no longer out of step with the times.

Orphan Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) is the proto-feminist anti-hero of the piece, doomed to spend her life working in governess or other working class position due to the status of her birth, and determined to do something about it. To that end, she first ensnares a blind-to-ambitions BFF in Amelia (Claudia Jessie), a wealthy and kindly girl, who is perfectly complacent in her wealth until it disappears, and then she's helpless.

But before this can happen, Becky has already used her friend as a stepping stone to the high life, attempting to find the first nearby rich man to marry her, or at least become engaged for social climbing purposes. Any rich man will do, no matter how simple, whether it be Amelia's brother Jos (David Fynn), a fool if ever there was one, her employer Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes), or his thick-as-a-brick son Rawdon (Tom Bateman). But in the end, it's Crawley's sister Matilda (Frances de la Tour) who really gives the girl a leg up.

The problem with the seven-episode piece is it doesn't trust the audience to be as quick-witted as the protagonist. The story is ever straining to explain the socio-political subtleties of the period as if those in 2018 cannot comprehend class differences and code-switching. It also desperately wants the audience to connect the story with our own modern-day posing on social media and conspicuous consumption, including having Michael Palin as Thackery to show up and beat us about the head with it at the beginning of every episode.

If the series wanted to be modern, it should have reset the story in 2018 and have done. (It's not like this is not a story with good bones that cannot support such a thing.) At least then the soundtrack of modern day pop hits wouldn't feel so jarring, and chances are many more people would tune in to watch.

(Credit: Mammoth Screen for ITV via Amazon Studios)

All that being said, Olivia Cooke is worth watching. She's the series MVP, and her Becky Sharpe is a modern girl trapped in a 1840s world. If the series had trusted Cooke to carry everything, it would have made for a much better series. The times when she is not on screen are the weakest, with viewers left in the weary company of Amelia and the blandly dull William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn) who suck all the life out of the piece until Becky walks back in.

But for those who have never read or seen Vanity Fair, this is a perfectly good by-the-numbers adaptation. The story moves along at a good clip, there's almost no bloat to speak of in the seven hours. It's just unable to be more than a basic adaptation, despite all the production's cravings to be somehow more than it is. Perhaps next time, it could take a lesson from Sharp on how to go about it.

All seven episodes of Vanity Fair are available via streaming on Amazon for those with prime memberships beginning Dec. 21, 2018.