The Sense of an Ending
The New York Sun.
August 23, 2004.
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
These are the last words of William Makepeace Thackeray’s great novel Vanity Fair, now turned into a moving picture for the ninth time. Thackeray’s heroine, Becky Sharp, is the one who has not ended happily. Shunned by all respectable people — including her best friend and her only son — she remains immensely sympathetic to the reader, yet the emblem of the vanity that gives the book its title. The movie, directed by Mira Nair, doesn’t end like that. My apologies for the spoiler, but no one can seriously suppose that it could have ended so, or in any other unhappy way. Movies cost such enormous sums to make today that their makers can’t risk their investment with a downer ending. So naturally Becky is given the happy end that, surely, every reader must wish for her. Vanity Fair — a term for the temptations of the world from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress — has become, like the magazine of the same name, not a warning against worldly pleasures and ambitions but a celebration of them. "Thackeray" is just a brand name, offering the cachet of his canonical status for those vain of seeming to know "good" books.
His is the second novel in two weeks to be given a similar treatment by the movies. Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things adapts Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies with a change in title that foreshadows the change in tone. The novel’s savage satire of the smart set in the Britain of the interwar years is completely transformed by the simple expedient of leaving out its irony. No one doubts that Waugh was attracted to his Bright Young Things even as he loathed them, but by leaving out the loathing, Fry not only takes away the novel’s satirical edge, he makes it into something trivial. Contempt for the mad, the fey, the decadent, the corrupt, the licentious and the self-indulgent among the "best" people of their time is turned to bland affection. They are meant to be as fun to us as they obviously were to themselves.
And, like Miss Nair, Fry changes the ending. Vile Bodies, written in 1930, ends in the middle of "the biggest battlefield in the history of the world." Waugh’s hero, Adam Fenwick-Symes, having sold his worthless fiancée, Nina, to the even more worthless Ginger Littlejohn, his wealthy rival, for the price of his hotel bill, is now part of some great military debacle and presumably doomed. On the battlefield he meets the drunken major who owes him £35,005 and collects — but the sum is now just enough to buy "a couple of drinks and a newspaper."
The bleakness of Waugh’s vision of the end of the world obviously wasn’t going to sell many movie tickets. Fry makes Waugh’s predicted Armageddon into the actual Second World War, which as we all know ended with victory for the good guys, and pegs the money from the drunken major at its (very considerable ) pre-war value. Adam returns with it to London to buy Nina back. Naturally, the two will live happily ever after. Waugh’s ending accomplished exactly the same thing as Thackeray’s. The fate of the hero in both novels was meant to serve as a memento mori, a reminder of how fleeting are the pleasures of this world and how foolish those who devote themselves to them.
What is lost by slapping a smiley-face on these endings is any sense of the books’ moral meaning or purpose. Does it matter that the movies misrepresent these two novels to an audience most of which will not have read them and so give a false idea of what their authors thought and believed? Well, bad taste always matters. But the erasure of the moral content might conceivably be justified if it were replaced with something equally compelling or even interesting, but it is not. Neither movie has anything much to say to us, though Miss Nair does offer a brief but gratuitous critique of the British empire and Mr Fry makes a heartfelt plea for tolerance towards all sexual preferences.
This also matters, I think. By taking away the novels’ now-strange but once-familiar points of view, the movies are guilty of Merchant-Ivoryism, or the morally and politically triumphalist way of condescending to the past by making everyone in it stupid and nasty except for our representative, the lone figure who shares a recognizably modern and liberal outlook and so serves as a standing rebuke to the past for being, well, the past. So instead of a thrilling glimpse into the reality of former times we have just another reflection of our own. It’s not that we’re not glad to be told by Miss Nair and Mr Fry, as we have been told by so many others, that the British empire and the British class system were very bad things, or that homosexuals were abominably treated in the now long-past days when homosexual acts were illegal. It’s just that, to get these familiar precepts we have had to give up something else, and something much rarer.
This is the more the pity because movies, when they are well done, are better at bringing the past to life than any other art form. At their best, as in such different movies as Ingemar Bergmann’s autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil, about the Civil War, Marcel Carné’s portrait of Paris in the 1820s in Les Enfants du Paradis or François Truffaut’s of the First World War era in Jules et Jim — or even Ronald Reagan’s greatest film (directed by Sam Wood) King’s Row — such movies suddenly and breathtakingly annihilate the distance between us and the dead.
None of these are adaptations of great novels of the past and, generally speaking, it is much harder to make a great movie of a great book than of a second-rate one. One who succeeded was David Lean, whose Great Expectations of 1946 is almost as precious to lovers of Charles Dickens as the novel itself. As it happens, Dickens himself, seeing that a happy ending was consistent with what had gone before, changed his original ending to allow for his hero and heroine to be reunited for good. "I saw no shadow of another parting from her," says Pip, the narrator. Lean merely made this more explicit by having John Mills — who, by coincidence, has a cameo as a cocaine-sniffing old lord in Bright Young Things — and Valerie Hobson embrace and run out of Miss Havisham’s gloomy house into the sunshine.
This movie has just been released in DVD form along with three other film versions of familiar literary properties under the heading of "Great Adaptations" by the Criterion Collection in a "Four-Disc Collectors’ Set." The others include Lean’s own Oliver Twist — not as great a movie as Great Expectations but still very good — Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963) and a comically dated version of Richard Connell’s story The Most Dangerous Game from 1932. It’s a curious combination: two movies adapted from Dickens novels about poor and unhappy boys becoming rich and happy and two movies about civilized man’s return to a state of savagery on remote tropical islands, reduced to hunting down their fellow human beings as game. Of course the one thing that all have in common is that they are based on books commonly read in high school.
"Just in time for the start of the school year," says the publicity flyer, "Criterion presents four classic literary adaptations together in a single set at a special price" The special price, by the way, is $99.95, which seems rather higher than unspecial prices for four DVDs, but this is as blatant a pitch for custom from kids looking to avoid reading as you’re likely to see this side of Cliff’s Notes. They don’t even bother with the Cliff’s Notes disclaimer about how this is not meant to be a substitute for reading the originals. Of course it never is, but on rare occasions the movie can give us in an instant what only develops over time from reading: a sense of the presence of the past.