BOSTON — Fifteen years ago, playwright Andrew Davies was asked to adapt "Vanity Fair" as a musical in London. The project evaporated, but the desire to work with William Makepeace Thackeray's masterpiece did not. So when the BBC called, Mr. Davies leapt at the chance to turn the novel into a miniseries.
"It was something I wanted to do for a long time," Davies said in a recent telephone interview from London. "It is such an exciting story, and such a challenge."
It's a challenge he met in a masterly manner - this interpretation is as accomplished as his 1995 teleplay of "Pride and Prejudice." The six-hour "Vanity Fair" airs on A&E Oct. 24 and 25, 8-11 p.m.
As the story opens, England has just gone to war with Napoleon's France. The lives of two English women, close friends from their school days, intertwine and separate several times.
Amelia Sedley (Frances Grey) is very, very good, and Becky Sharp (Natasha Little) is very, very bad. As their dual histories are revealed, Thackeray's opinion of both women keeps adjusting slightly to emphasize their humanity.
Amelia comes from a moderately wealthy middle-class family, and her prospective husband is a soldier who stands to inherit a fortune.
Becky is a poor orphan who must make her way by her wits. As devious and manipulative as she is charming and attractive, she soon dazzles Amelia's brother, Jos. But Amelia's roguish beau squelches Becky's plans out of spite - and Becky later finds means to punish him.
Amelia's and Becky's fortunes eventually reverse, and then reverse again. Amelia is the kind of woman whose goodness protects her from the world. Becky is a survivor whose every adversity becomes an opportunity - she's a shark in tepid waters.
And yet, though she is a bad wife, a worse mother, and a shameless social climber, she does care for Amelia. Near the end of the story, Becky saves her from a terrible grief.
One of the great difficulties in adapting the novel, Davies says, lies in simplifying its complex plot. "What I did was take the two girls and make them the center. Every scene is about one or the other or both - I had to let go of quite a lot of the periphery and some wonderful characters."
Another difficulty in telling this story was achieving Thackeray's ironic tone (Davies doesn't use Thackeray's narrative voice to comment on the action) without descending into cynicism.
Though Davies admits Thackeray himself becomes a bit fed up with Amelia's "besotted loyalty" to a dead husband (who was a cad while he lived), Davies's tone is gentle, humorous, and ironic.
From the standpoint of irony and content, the story is relevant to our own era, he says.
" 'Vanity Fair's' world is very much a world of appearances, things being done behind the scenes," Davies says. "Public faces and private vices, and all that sort of thing. Young women without too much educational background who climb to positions of power and authority.
Davies says that, in its day, "Vanity Fair" was a bit scandalous because it was considered ungentlemanly to reveal what was really going on behind the shining surface of society.
This is a novel about the grotesqueries of Thackeray's era - the hypocrisy, aggression, and self-concern the author saw as a sinful parade of human weakness at every turn.
Director Marc Munden chooses an excellent style that emphasizes extreme close-ups and odd angles, punctuating his central themes with images of animals that are symbolic of the greediness and venality of some characters.
But he also manages to bring out in his actors a sense of the tragedy of their mistakes and shows a warm-heartedness toward them, despite their flaws.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society