How did the most recent film and television adaptations of Vanity Fair handle Becky Sharp?
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
To review what character arcs are, see the overview article here.
For those who may be unfamiliar with Vanity Fair, it is a 19th-century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray that follows the rise and fall of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley and their family and friends. There have been many screen adaptations over the years. It was made into a film in 2004 with Reese Witherspoon starring as Becky Sharp, and this year, ITV and Amazon Studios released a mini-series starring Olivia Cooke.
In the book and mini-series, which follows it closely, Becky claws her way up from being nobody to socializing with high society. And claw is the operative word. She will do anything to get what she wants. Nobody truly matters to her, not even her husband or son. She drives away her in-laws and her friend Amelia over the course of her climb. In the process of selling her soul for jewels, money, and invitations to grand parties, she betrays her husband one time too many. He takes their son and leaves her destitute. While she does get by on her wits and manages to always keep herself sheltered and fed, she has no-one, and when her husband dies, and their son inherits the Crawley estate, he asks to never see Becky again because she was such an unloving mother.
Now she does leech onto Jos Sedley in the end, following him around the world and milking his pity for her. She encourages him to take a life-insurance policy, and it’s strongly implied in the book that she contributes to his ill health and demise over the course of several months. However, Jos isn’t a complete fool and leaves very little to her. Becky will always land on her feet, but she has no real friends or love and merely subsists. She will never regain the lofty heights she reached.
In the 2004 film, it mostly follows the events of the book...on a surface level. Becky is portrayed in a more sympathetic light. She still lies and tricks her way to the top, but her affections for her family and friends are genuine, rather than an affectation she uses to suit her needs. In the beginning, when she first goes after Jos Sedley, she is in love and gushing over him instead of scheming to take advantage of a socially awkward man of wealth.
Then later, when she is showered with gifts by a wealthy gentleman, she is shocked and appalled to find that he expects her to be his mistress, and when her husband leaves her, it’s treated as cruelty on his part. (It does make me wonder how someone could be that naive while being clever enough to con her way to the top, but that’s not what we’re analyzing here.)
Becky still becomes destitute and friendless in the last act, but because the filmmakers tried to make her likable, they just couldn’t leave her down. Instead of following Jos with her hand out for tablescraps, she ends up with him in the end. The last scene is of the two of them snuggling together on the back of an elephant.
Happily Ever After Doesn’t Always Work
As a romance writer, happily-ever-afters (HEA) are my bread and butter, but that doesn’t always work in other genres. In the case of a tale like Vanity Fair, denying the charcter her HEA is much more satisfying. Despite the way the film version tries to justify her actions, nearly everything Becky does is horrible. She is a conniving narcissist in the book and mini-series, and even in the film, her greed outstrips her feelings. Her one kind act, telling Amelia to stop pining over her horribly unworthy dead husband, isn’t enough to earn Becky’s happiness.
Seeing her get what she wanted from the start says, “Hey, acting like garbage to everyone in your life ultimately pays off!” Although the book version isn’t as punished for her evil as she could have been, she at least isn’t rewarded. For a truly unsavory protagonist, a good fall arc is the most satisfying.
For the final installment in this series, join me next week as we look at flat arcs. They may be oxymoronic, but they’re a staple of fiction!
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