At the Movies
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

From page to screen

Current film adaptations don’t capture the wit of Thackeray, Waugh, Dubus


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 Purefoy), 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). A good deal of the movie’s action consists of the material Adam chronicles, which inevitably features upper-class celebrities. The high-jinks of Agatha Runcible (Fenella Woolgar) even cause a government to fall, and leave her in the insane asylum.

Adam’s girlfriend, Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), seems perfectly at home in this decadence. She is also being pursued by Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant), who appears to have money but no real identity. Our sympathies are with the decent Adam, but the film offers no evidence of strong emotions felt by any of the three.

“Bright Young Things” includes fewer hints of moral disapproval than Waugh’s novel implies, and makes no effort to have us identify with its characters. This works well enough for the brief comic appearances of John Mills as his character takes in cocaine through a straw, Peter O’Toole in a wonderful turn as Colonel Blount, Jim Broadbent as a drunken major and Stockard Channing as an American evangelist, but some will find that the sophisticated poses of the actors ultimately become tiresome.

Someone learning to write a screenplay would profit more from a close study of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, directed by John Curran from a script by Larry Gross. The movie tells the mostly downbeat story of marital infidelity between two couples whose husbands both teach literature at a non-prestigious New England college. Since it makes adultery less attractive than do most sermons and offers no happy endings, it’s not apt to find large audiences, despite moving performances by Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo as Terry and Jack Linden. The Lindens have two small children to whom Jack seems genuinely devoted, and Jack jogs regularly with his smug, would-be writer-colleague Hank Evans (Peter Krause). But this doesn’t prevent him from carrying on with Hank’s wife, Edith (Naomi Watts), who is eager to revenge her husband’s routine infidelities.

Curran conveys a sense of dread with repeated shots at a railroad crossing while occasionally cutting to brief happy moments in the Linden marriage. Dern makes Terry’s frantic housekeeping and evident dependence on her husband truly wrenching, but a guilty-looking Jack seems to encourage her affair with Hank. If Curran didn’t exercise tight control, the whole thing could easily have become farce, especially with Hank’s unsuccessful periods of trying to write in his office while hoping some dazzled co-ed will drop by.

The story is set in the ’70s; its faculty wives seem to have no serious interests beyond home and family. The credits say that the film is based on two novellas by Dubus, the titular work and a second one called “Adultery,” but Edith gives no hint of the deep compassion the character exhibits in “Adultery,” in which she is the only love of a dying priest who talks passionately about his need for the Eucharist. “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” makes us believe in the basic decency of Jack and Laura, but today’s supposedly liberated movies seem still unready to tackle the deeper tones of “Adultery.”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: