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Vanity Fair - Julian Fellowes Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Where on earth do you begin when you are given a classic piece of English literature and told you have to knock it into shape and something that comes in at under two and a half hours?
A.
[Laughs] I think when you're adapting anything, really, you're looking for what the film is. And there are certain books that have got more than one film in them, and there is an element of choice as to what the story is.
I think the story of Vanity Fair always has to be the story of Becky Sharp, so there is a kind of discipline in that, in itself. But I came on board after Mira, again like her, I've known the book very well for years; I've loved it. And my sort of feeling, my very strong feeling actually, is that Thackeray is very much in favour of Becky Sharp - he likes her energy, he likes the fact she's a doer and shaker, he likes the fact that she doesn't accept the hand that life has dealt her, and that does, to me, make her a very kind of modern heroine. She's very much in key with the way we think now. I mean, one of the problems with adapting some of Dickens and that kind of thing is that, essentially, that kind of Victorian heroine, who is kind of expected to sit back and take it on the chin, is not a type that we particularly admire now, and so you find in adaptations a completely artificial storyline kind of jerked in to try and energize these women and make them relevant to a modern audience.
Well, in Vanity Fair you don't have to do that. This is a modern woman and that we both found very appealing.
I was very drawn to the project when I knew that Mira was doing it because what I loved about Monsoon Wedding was that I felt she'd combined this quite detailed narrative and quite strongly character-led story with a sense of the world that these people were living in. I mean, I watched that film - I didn't know anything about India really - but I think you leave Monsoon Wedding feeling you know better about the world those people are living in, and I think that's what you leave Vanity Fair feeling - that you get not just the story of these characters, but the world that they're operating in, which seemed to me to be the right kind of treatment.
Of course, it's always a battle when you're sat in rooms arguing back and forth about whether you could have this and this, or not that and that and so on and so forth, and in the end there's always a moment when you kill your darlings, um, but I think we both had the same idea, that we wanted to tell the story of this extraordinary modern girl making her own fortune.

Q. Is it fair to say that Becky Sharp has been softened up for modern, international audiences, because it's fair to say she's not quite as ruthless as I remember her in the book? She's more sympathetic?
A.
Well Thackeray's always very careful to make her not unkind. She uses Miss Crawley, she uses Pitt Crawley, but he never makes her unkind. He is always on her side. What I think works particularly well in the movie, actually, is that the decision to cast an American as Becky Sharpe, but not have any other Americans in the cast, which of course could easily have been done, means that Reese has a sort of different rhythm, because Americans have a different energy, and you do, I think, have a sense that, even though her accent is flawless and all the rest of it, you have a sense that she is marching to a rhythm of a slightly different drum to all the other characters. And that, for me, is completely true to the Thackeray Becky Sharp, that she's with these people, but she's not of them ever - she's always somehow pacing herself.
And that, I think, simply in the casting, has been wonderfully well achieved.

Q. When you have a novel as rich as this, were there any scenes you would loved to have included that you had to leave out?
A.
There's always stuff that you weep and wail about. That's just part of the process. The only one that was shot that I really did regret was when young Pitt's mother-in-law, Lady Southdown, says she can't be in the house when Becky and Rawdon are coming down to the funeral, and she storms out and Pitt steams after her and screams after her 'don't forget your medicine chest'! They just all did it so well, but the trouble is every scene in this kind of film has to earn its place because of the narrative, and if they can't justify their existence, then they go.
But the one real change that we made between the book and the film, rather than great changes to Becky or anything like that, was the marriage is a romantic marriage in the film; more romantic than in the book. She's fond of Rawdon in the book, but it's not a great love.
And that was really for two reasons - I mean one, so that we could have a sort of classic pretty boy [laughs], a great love story, but also so that when Becky allows her judgement to be set awry by all the things she's achieved, and the world she's got into, that she will lose something of great value. In film terms, you're always speaking in short-hand, and that meant that the life that she was losing had to be very valuable.
For me what that's done, and in James' performance, is very much to underpin the strand that is in the book, which is Rawdon's love of the boy, and, in fact, that stuff, that Becky becomes a negligent mother and sort of takes her eye off the ball and allows her ambitions to pervert her judgement, but Rawdon really loves his son, that is completely Thackeray And by making Rawdon, essentially a more interesting and more romantic figure, for me that has become one of the most moving parts of the film.
I think the carriage scene, when the child goes away to school and Rawdon doesn't want him to go, is really very tear-making, and that was a bonus that came out of the slightly different emphasis that we had placed on Rawdon.

 

 

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