What’s Vanity Fair without Becky Sharp? Well, of course, it’s Mira Nair’s new movie by the same name, a movie that alters one of the great (but not lovable) characters of literature beyond recognition.

I’d like to add my two cents worth of thought to The Other Charlotte’s astute commentary on this disappointing movie. Like TOC, I thought that Reese Witherspoon (“one of my favorite twinkling-eyed comediennes, both gorgeous and funny,” says TOC) was a brilliant choice for William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, the social-climbing vixen from whom all other characters in the book radiate as spokes from the center of a wheel.

But guess what–Ms. Witherspoon didn’t play Becky Sharp.

Yes, she played a character named Becky Sharp but this Becky bore very little resemblance to Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. In the script, Becky is transformed from a heartless social climber ready to exploit everybody from the tradesmen whom she robs to her own child whom she neglects horribly. One of literature’s worst mothers–and this is a tough category, including as it does such paragons as Medea and Joan Crawford–she becomes in the movie a tender parent, sad and conflicted instead of cold (as she was in the book) when Lord Steyne, her notorious patron in her attack on the doors of Society, forces her to send little Rawdon off to school so he can have more quality time with Becky.

It’s as if a contemporary script doctor took one look at Thackeray’s Becky, and figured audiences today would not be able to handle her. The truth about Becky? You can’t handle the truth. That seems to be what Mira Nair’s screenwriter decided. Why is it that, in an age that says it lauds strong women, we can’t take Becky Sharp? Oh, and by the way, Becky speaks in the movie about getting her priorities in order. Did women in the age of Napoleon prioritize? She also announces that she is in a delicate condition in a group, which would have been considered indelicate.

These weren’t the only historical inaccuracies. As TOC has mentioned, one of the most dazzling scenes in the film simply would not have taken place. I refer to the Indian dance performed by scantily-clad aristocratic ladies, Becky somehow among them, before an audience that includes King George IV. The old rake might have attended such an evening back when he was just plain old Prinny, but as King he had to set different priorities. Even if London’s upper class women were inclined to dance half-naked, Kingy would have stayed home.

Interestingly, Amelia Sedley, one of the most vapid women in literature (sorry, TOC), is given some depth. I had wondered how I would sit through the Amelia scenes–not to worry: Amelia in the movie is no more Amelia than Becky is Becky. That sorta doesn’t bother me as much because Amelia isn’t the linchpin of Vanity Fair. Amelia Smelia, I always said, every time I read this wonderful book. Rawdon’s deliciously awful aunt, who espouses romantic notions that lead Becky to assume–erroneously–that the rich aunt’s love of romance will overpower her snobbish tendencies if Becky marries Rawdon, remained quite marvelous.

The problem with rewriting Becky Sharp is that this heartless and soulless woman is the heart and soul of the novel. Without Becky, Vanity Fair becomes one great costume drama–and, if that’s what you want, you’ll love the movie. The scenes are quite gorgeous, especially, as TOC noted, the famous party that quickly turns into a rout as word of a seeming defeat at Waterloo arrives. TOC quite brilliantly compares this to the fall of Atlanta (now, there was a tragedy), at the hands of the mass arsonist known as General Sherman. (Becky, as TOC brilliantly notes, is the prototype for Scarlet O’Hara, fiction’s other great and soulless heroine.) There are beautiful parties, and a dazzling scene, beautiful and noble in a macabre way, of the fallen English soldiers at Waterloo.

But without the real, unvarnished Becky, Rawdon’s love for his little son, so touching in the book, is less effective when we aren’t able to see the poor old booby as a well-bred buffoon who is putty in the hands of his vixen wife. The scene where Rawdon takes little Rawdy to ride his pony in the park is less affecting when we lack the knowledge that father and son are in the hands of a cold and devious woman.

As Charlotte points out the subtitle to Thackeray’s VF was “A Novel Without a Hero,” and, with a hero (or heroine), it just doesn’t work. Becky was a great victimizer, not a victim. It is Becky’s utter lack of moral scruples that makes her decision to intervene and bring Amelia and Dobbin, her loyal suitor, together so fascinating. Why did this bad woman do this one good deed? Of course, the movie leaves out her worst deed–she didn’t marry Jos in the novel. She ended up with his fortune, and scholars have debated for generations if Jos died of natural causes or was helped along by Becky.

Quiz Question: If the Victorians weren’t frightened by Becky Sharp, why are we?