How does ITV’s Vanity Fair compare to the original novel by William Thackeray?

The 800-page classic of English literature has been condensed into less than seven hours of TV drama

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes might introduce herself to people as “Mr Thackeray’s assistant,” but while ITV and Amazon’s new adaptation of the literary classic stays very true to the plot and characters of his novel, there’s something very fresh about this drama.


With a focus on its two female leads and a light, humorous approach to the source material, Vanity Fair is back for 2018 and in very good shape. Here’s how this TV adaptation compares to the novel…

How faithful is Vanity Fair to the original novel?

Vanity Fair has been adapted again and again, from the 1911 silent movie right through to the 2004 blockbuster starring Reese Witherspoon. So what makes this version different from all the others? What’s been changed, what’s been left out, and how does it compare to the original novel?

Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and actors Claudia Jessie, Olivia Cooke and Tom Bateman tell five things that make this adaptation distinctive:

1. It’s actually about a friendship between two girls

Vanity Fair - Olivia Cooke and Claudia Jessie

“I noticed when I read it again, something I hadn’t really noticed before, was that really when you strip it all down, it’s about two girls and their friendship,” Hughes says.

“That’s the important thing. I kept saying to everybody: ‘You know that the second lead, the second co-star, is not Rawdon Crawley or Dobbin, even. The second lead is Amelia.’ It’s about two girls, and I don’t think that’s really been thought about in quite that way before. It’s about what a girls’ friendship is like between two girls who have nothing in common.”

That means cutting out some of the bits of the story where Becky and Amelia are separated, and bringing them together more than in the novel.

“If you don’t have a focus on the two girls you end up with a terrible problem, I think, of – they’re apart for so long in the book, you’re trying to touch base with them but they’re not together,” she says.

2. Amelia is less of a “sap”

Amelia and George in Vanity Fair

Hughes continues: “I wanted to give Amelia more of a place in the sun as well. The Victorians thought she was absolutely gorgeous and Thackeray thought she was the perfect woman, but for modern ears she’s a bit of a sap.

“Poor little Amelia has this massive journey towards adulthood, towards an adult understanding of the world. I drew that out of the novel. I mean it’s there, it is absolutely there, it’s not something I’ve invented, but it’s funny because I didn’t really set out to do that, but it was as I was writing it, I realised that was what was there.”

Jessie adds: “Amelia’s described as someone who would die over a dead canary, so there’s a part of me that’s been faithful to that fact. I have cried when I’ve needed to cry. But also I didn’t want to play her so wet that we’d get really, really annoyed with her!”

3. Chunks of the novel (and some of the characters) have been cut

A lot of the things that happen later on in the novel have been drastically condensed or cut out entirely to keep things within seven episodes. This has involved “binning a lot of relatives” and “taking out some of the round and round the houses stuff.”

“It struck me that the second half of the book is quite repetitive, and poor old Thackeray was a journalist, writing to order, and he was just keeping it going, keeping it going,” Hughes explains.

So, for example, Sir Pitt Crawley doesn’t have a brother or a sister-in-law or a whole load of nieces and nephews in this adaptation, meaning the characters and storylines have been re-jigged a bit.

4. We see the actual Battle of Waterloo take place

Vanity Fair battle of waterloo

Vanity Fair is a co-production between Amazon and ITV, which meant there was a lot more money to play with – allowing producers to take us to the actual Battle of Waterloo.

Hughes reveals: “When we first began with this we were just doing it for ITV, and there was a slightly worried conversation along the lines of, ‘Well what are we going to do about the Battle of Waterloo?'”

Thackeray actually stays in Brussels with the women while the men go to fight, but this TV version puts us where the action is – thanks to Amazon.

“Being in co production with them meant that we could do more than we would ever have been able to do before, and one of the things we did was spend a week in a field outside Reading, re-staging the Battle of Waterloo,” Hughes says. “Which is completely mad.”

What are the differences between ITV’s Vanity Fair and Thackeray’s novel?

The vast majority of the TV adaptation comes straight from the pages of Thackeray’s novel, especially in the first few episodes. However, there are a few key differences as the story moves from novel to screen…

Episode one

The character of Thackeray: The novel kicks things off with an introduction from the narrator, who is characterised as the “Manager” of this Vanity Fair puppet show performance. This narrator has received a bit of an update in the TV version, with the figure of Thackeray himself (played by Michael Palin) presiding over an actual fairground as he sets the scene for his story.

George and Dobbin’s friendship: In the book we get a much fuller explanation of the schoolboy roots of the men’s friendship. The story jumps back to when social outcast Dobbin saved George from a beating and defeated his bully in a fight – but in the TV version, this flashback is left out.

Episode two

Meddling relatives: Mrs Bute Crawley (played by Sian Clifford) determines to find out more about the upstart Becky Sharp. In this adaptation she is Sir Pitt’s son’s wife, though in the original novel she’s Sir Pitt’s brother’s wife. Also, in the novel she writes a letter to Miss Pinkerton asking for information, although in the TV adaptation she goes to visit the headmistress in person and hears all about her low birth…

Episode three

[Spoilers for Sunday night’s episode]

Miss Crawley meets Amelia Sedley: In the novel, Miss Crawley does take Becky to visit Amelia in Russell Square, deigning to leave Park Lane and visit a new area of London. But instead of going into the house to pay a visit to Amelia and her mother Mrs Sedley, she sits outside in her carriage and stares at Sam (originally “Sambo”) in shock.

“Miss Crawley was waiting in her carriage below, her people wondering at the locality in which they found themselves, and gazing upon honest Sambo, the black footman of Bloomsbury, as one of the queer natives of the place,” Thackeray writes.

But the elderly lady is “fairly captivated” by the “sweet blushing face” of Amelia when Becky brings her over for an introduction. Amelia is formally invited to Miss Crawley’s house in Park Lane for the morning, while George and Rawdon join them all for dinner.

Mrs Bute’s arrival – and swift departure: In the novel, Mrs Bute Crawley manages to arrive at the house in Park Lane just before Miss Briggs has a chance to tell Matilda Crawley that her protege has eloped with her nephew. She helps break the news, and then spends the next few months suffocating her rich and sickly relative with medical attention and religious warnings.

Finally realising that Miss Crawley might need some fresh air, Mrs Bute Crawley takes her off to Brighton (where Becky and Rawdon quickly follow). However, while in the TV adaptation the elderly patient finally has enough and fires Mrs Bute as her nurse, in the novel Mrs Bute only leaves when she’s summoned home to her husband (who’s had a riding accident).

Dobbin’s matchmaking: If anything, Captain William Dobbin’s matchmaking between his beloved Emmy and his friend George is even more frantic in the original novel than in the TV adaptation. He actually goes to see Emmy after secretly buying her piano, and is shocked by her “ghastly” appearance and look of despair, later telling his friend: “George, she’s dying.” Having won George around, Dobbin then smooths the way with Amelia’s mum and arranges the whole thing.

Amelia’s wedding: In the novel, the only guests at George and Amelia’s wedding are Dobbin, Jos, and Mrs Sedley – but neither Jos nor Mrs Sedley attend the church in the TV adaptation. Instead, Becky and Rawdon are there, and Becky even spends the night with Amelia before the wedding.

Miss Briggs’ intervention: In Thackeray’s original telling, the artful Becky makes her appeal to the sympathies of Miss Crawley’s female companion on a beach in Brighton while the old lady is staying there. Miss Briggs is able to engineer a meeting between Rawdon and his aunt Miss Crawley, and she promises him some money at her lawyer’s office in London – a ploy designed to get him and Becky to leave Brighton, which they do. Has the entire Brighton trip been cut from the story?

Vanity Fair continues on Sundays at 9pm on ITV


This article was originally published on 16 September 2018

Sign up for the free newsletter