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.

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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 RadioTimes.com 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.”

Vanity Fair continues on Sundays at 9pm on ITV

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This article was originally published in August 2018


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