India in Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair

Over the weekend, I watched Mira Nair’s 2004 adaptation of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I had seen it several years before, and even before I rewatched it, I remembered that the movie left me feeling more affectionate toward the characters than the notoriously satirical novel did. I tend to have this experience in general with adaptations–it’s usually easier to like a character I am seeing portrayed by a flesh-and-blood actor as compared to a character described by a (sometimes vicious) narrator and perhaps, in the case of a Victorian novel, illustrated in a cartoonish style. But I think there’s an additional reason why Nair applies a more charitable interpretation to the characters, which is simply that she’s a woman. This is no doubt why main character Becky Sharp, while every bit as strong and smart and (a little bit) ruthless as in the novel, appears less like a shrew and more like a woman who has spent her life striving to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and orphanhood.

I also remembered that India, a distant backdrop for some of the plotlines in the novel, takes a more prominent role under the direction of the Indian-American Nair. But not until this latest viewing did I realize the extent and nuance of India’s presence in the film. Unlike some other movies of the last few decades, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel (which I have to admit I really do enjoy), Vanity Fair does not carry the message that if British people (or white people in general; I think this message is also implied in Eat Pray Love) go to India, they will have a magical experience and all their problems will be solved. While Vanity Fair celebrates the music, cuisine, and clothing styles of India, it doesn’t slap a simple, single symbolic meaning on the entire nation or its culture. For example, in one scene, India seems to represent heartwarming family values (when the lonely Dobbin, who has escaped to India to nurse his unrequited love, watches the happy parents and child), but in a later scene, Indian music, dance, and costume are associated with moral degradation in Lord Steyne’s creepy-sexy “ballet.”

The connection with India is, I think, the reason for Nair’s significantly more positive portrayal of Jos Sedley, a British colonial bureaucrat home on leave from India and also the first man who makes a bit of a fool of himself over Becky Sharp. In the novel, Jos is a minor character who is regularly mocked by his fellow characters and the narrator–for being fat, for being nonconfrontational (or cowardly, as Thackeray seems to present him, but I think it’s a good thing to have a peaceful young man in a novel full of hotheads and warriors), and for having, in the eyes of his hidebound friends and family, nearly “gone native” in his affinity for Indian clothing and cooking. Although Jos is part of a colonial machine whose purpose is to impose British rule and culture on India, as an individual he seems to be doing more absorbing than imposing. Whenever he appears in the film, he is portrayed as a respectful and delighted fan of Indian culture, which he (again respectfully) tries to share with the folks back home. Although he remains a minor character in the movie, he does not, as in the novel, finally and ignominiously drop out of the story about halfway through, fleeing from the Battle of Waterloo. Instead [SPOILER], he shows up at the end, after Becky has lost her love and many other things, and we learn that he’s been looking for her and hoping to take her back to India with him. The film ends with the two of them riding an elephant in what surely looks like a wedding procession. And while the scene looks a little bit like an India tourism commercial, I love that Mira Nair found a way to celebrate her family’s ancestral land and set Becky Sharp up with the man who’s loved her all along. Thackeray purists may have a problem with the ending, but I think it’s lovely.

for your New Year’s resolution to read more children’s lit

Because if that isn’t one of your New Year’s resolutions, it should be.

When I was grading my children’s lit students’ response papers on contemporary realism, for which at least five of them chose to write about Louis Sachar’s Holes, I realized that I had never read this novel, though I had seen the 2003 movie (which is excellent, and which I’ll address shortly).  So during my Christmas break, I decided to spend an afternoon reading it.  Now, I’m pretty sure I’ll use it as an assigned text if I teach the course again next fall.  Let me tell you why Holes is so good.

In slightly over 200 pages, Sachar weaves a five-generation family saga together with a hundred-year-old mystery and the story of a teenage boy’s developing self-esteem and moral consciousness.  In the process, he meaningfully addresses the penal system, homelessness, and race relations in America.  Yet there’s nothing pretentious or alienating about this novel.  It’s exciting, it’s funny, and it’s perfectly pitched toward that elusive reading demographic, elementary to middle school-aged boys.

When I get around to teaching Holes, I’ll have to comb through it to find all the symbolism, parallelism, and other literary devices that Sachar uses in such a not heavy-handed way.  For now, here’s one example: the situational irony.  I love the little detail at the end of the novel that tells us that Camp Green Lake ends up turning into a Girl Scout camp, a wonderful conclusion to all Mr. Sir’s lame jokes about how it isn’t a Girl Scout camp.  As ironic reversals go, this ranks right up there with Haman’s nasty shock in the book of Esther, my current go-to example of situational irony.

I’ll also have to find time in the course to show the movie, which is one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen (not that I valorize faithfulness; I understand that books and films are two totally different media), probably because Sachar himself wrote the screenplay.  (He also appears in a brief cameo–he’s the balding guy that Sam the Onion Man tells to rub onion juice on his scalp.)  One thing I appreciate about the film is that all the characters from the book are in it; none of them are collapsed together for simplicity’s sake, as so often happens in adaptations.  I also think it’s important that each of the actors who portrays one of the boys in D Tent is the same race as the character in the book, since race is such a major (though relatively subtle) theme in this novel.

The one place where the movie diverges significantly from the book is also one of its areas of strength: the casting of the protagonist, Stanley Yelnats.  Shia LaBeouf plays this role with great sensitivity and humor (whatever he may be now, Shia used to be a really good actor), but he doesn’t fit the novel’s description of Stanley as a very overweight kid.  Stanley’s weight is important to the themes and even the plot of the novel, and it adds painful overtones to scenes that are already emotionally fraught (like when ZigZag tries to force Stanley to eat his cookie).  I wonder if some young fans of the novel were disappointed that the movie didn’t address this element–especially, perhaps, some kids who identified with Stanley.  I was a little disappointed myself, but it’s my only complaint about the film.

In conclusion, you should read Holes, watch the movie, and let me know what you think.  And get working on that New Year’s resolution.