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.