No major nineteenth-century novel—unless you count Dracula—has been filmed as often as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. There have been five versions since sound came in, the first released in 1932, the latest just now, and yet the book consistently eludes filmmakers. Not one of them catches its essence, which has less to do with the plot or the characters than with the author/ narrator’s voice. The novel has frequently been seen as the model for Gone with the Wind (no one believes Margaret Mitchell’s claim that she never read it), but although there are obvious similarities, the two books are utterly unalike in intention and result. Gone with the Wind is feverishly romantic, despite its famously anti-romantic heroine; it’s a passionate celebration of the Old South, soaked in nostalgia and regret—it’s a novel with a fierce private agenda. Vanity Fair is the most anti-romantic of nineteenth-century novels, and its famously anti-romantic heroine is the real thing. Nobody sweeps Becky Sharp up the stairs, à la Clark Gable, and crushes her into submission (and orgasm), and she wouldn’t be interested if somebody did. Becky is interested in money and social status, not love, although she’s casually fond of Rawdon Crawley, her husband, and “was always perfectly good-humored and kind to him.” Indeed, “If he had but a little more brains, I might make something of him.”
Scarlett has Tara and the O’Haras and the myth of the Old South; her society is collapsing, but she knows where she belongs in it. Becky has no family, and her background is the opposite of respectable, her father an alcoholic artist, her mother a French opera dancer. In fact, she has no social standing at all except whatever she can manufacture for herself. But she’s clever, and ambitious, and as unanchored morally as socially—and when she fails to snare a rich husband, her only way upward is that of an adventuress, as the cynical and observant Aunt Crawley quickly perceives. Scarlett O’Hara learns the hard way—through war and devastation and the loss of Rhett Butler—but she learns. There’s nothing for Becky Sharp to learn—she’s known it all from the beginning; she’s had to, to survive.
Although Becky is only one element of Thackeray’s novel, it’s the shape of her career and the ambiguities of her nature that first grip you. The alternate heroine—pretty, cosseted, foolish Amelia Sedley—is only interesting in regard to what happens to her; she herself is a shallow nonentity: used by Becky, abused by her selfish, narcissistic husband, overvalued by her maddeningly loyal admirer Dobbin, overprotective as a mother, and eternally having “recourse to the waterworks,” as Thackeray unkindly points out. When she very occasionally flares up, you want to applaud. Throughout, she’s merely acted upon, whereas Becky steers her own course, rampaging through society and basking in her successes while vigorously rebounding from the disasters that …