Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s classic novel may be too modern for audiences today



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Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharpe in ITV’s Vanity Fair.
Mammoth Screen for ITV

Jonathan Potter, Coventry University

The latest TV adaptation of Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair has polarised audiences expecting a traditional period drama. The first two episodes of Vanity Fair, co-produced by ITV and Amazon, received a mixed response on Twitter where viewers commented using the hashtag #VanityFair.

Comments seemed to broadly fall into two camps: those who admired the adaptation for its “fresh, modern take” on a period drama, and those who didn’t like what they saw as the needless modernisation of a period drama.

Interestingly, some of the features most identified as modernisations were actually from the original 1848 text: elements such as Becky Sharp throwing from her coach a dictionary she’d been given by her hated headmistress as she rode away from the school. Others took offence at Becky Sharp’s description of herself as a “secretary” – women were not secretaries at that time, one tweet protested. Meanwhile the frequent breaking of the fourth wall (Olivia Cooke, playing Becky Sharp, looks knowingly at the camera for dramatic effect) also caused a fair bit of angst.

These were not features that viewers associated with the genre of “period drama” and unfavourable comparisons were made with the popular BBC period drama Poldark (based on Winston Graham’s novels from the mid-20th century). That some viewers should so easily confuse historical accuracy with genre conventions is a striking example of the power of those genre conventions.

It is ironic, too, given that Thackeray subverted and satirised the conventions and tropes of his own time. This was true across his writing. In Pendennis, for example, a novel about the titular young gentleman making his way in London, Thackeray writes in his preface:

Perhaps the lovers of “excitement” may care to know, that this book began with a very precise plan, which was entirely put aside. Ladies and gentlemen, you were to have been treated, and the writer’s and the publisher’s pocket benefited, by the recital of the most active horrors.

In Vanity Fair, such subversions are frequent. In the first episode of the new adaptation, Becky Sharp – attempting to charm the wealthy and credulous Jos Sedley into proposing marriage – attends the Vauxhall pleasure gardens. This takes place in chapter six of the book, which Thackeray introduces satirically:

We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner … Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible … we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all.

Within the full version of that quoted passage, Thackeray offers suggestions of how the story might have been written in these different “manners”. He plays with these kinds of conventions to set up readers’ expectations, only to subvert and parody them. One of the century’s other great novelists, Anthony Trollope, wrote that Vanity Fair raised the fundamental question of “what a novel should be.” Trollope takes issue with some of the same things as modern viewers:

There are absurdities in it which would not be admitted to anyone who had not a peculiar gift of making even his absurdities delightful. No schoolgirl who ever lived would have thrown back her gift-book, as Rebecca did the ‘dixonary’, out of the carriage window as she was taken away from school. But who does not love that scene with which the novel commences? How could such a girl as Amelia Osborne have got herself into such society as that in which we see her at Vauxhall? But we forgive it all because of the telling.

Same story, different flavours

Like Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, the Victorian author of Alice in Wonderland, was also highly attuned to the way stories become categorised via genre, satirising this in an 1855 short story entitled Photography Extraordinary. Carroll’s story, presented like a newspaper article, reports an invention which literally transcribes narrative fiction directly from the human brain. Not only can Carroll’s machine “develop” a story onto paper directly from the brain, but the story can then be redeveloped into different genres. Story writing, Carroll seems to suggest, was a question of mechanically adjusting language to fit the conventions of distinct genres and meet readers’ expectations.

Becky Sharpe at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Mammoth Screen for ITV

As 21st-century readers and viewers, we still consume media in this way. Our genres have changed – we are not likely to talk about “silver fork” novels, for instance – but our use of genres has not. If anything, we have only become more reliant on them as we create more and more sophisticated algorithms for organising our digital media.

We also risk letting our expectations shape our understanding of the past. One of the big divergences between Thackeray’s book and the ongoing adaptation is that the series’ producers have elected to depict the Battle of Waterloo. When his military characters depart for the battlefield, Thackeray lets them drift out of view, writing: “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants.”

Thackeray, in other words, is willing to disappoint and frustrate readers’ expectations – he does not feel the need to conform to expectations. It is – as the book’s subtitle warns us – a “novel without a hero” (and in its serial form, not even a novel, simply “pen and pencil sketches of English society). But, of course, to adapt for television is to adjust the story to meet a different set of expectations. In that sense, adapting Vanity Fair is a bit like churning it through Carroll’s fiction machine one more time.The Conversation

Jonathan Potter, Lecturer/Tutor, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How I invented a new language for The City and The City



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Georgian alphabet.
rocketfall via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Alison Long, Keele University

The BBC’s latest drama series, an adaptation of China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City and The City, is a police procedural – but with a difference. The series is set in a fictitious divided city – Besźel and Ul Qoma – where the residents of each side are allowed no contact with each other. The main character, Inspector Tyador Borlu (played by David Morrissey), is a resident of Besźel – a slightly grubby, down-at-heel kind of place. During an investigation, he has to travel to the other city, Ul Qoma, and in order to heighten the difference for both the character and the audience, the Ul Qoman language of Illitan had to be completely different.

This is where I came in. As a linguist, I was called in to design a distinctive language for the series. This is not as uncommon as it sounds – there have been a number of languages created over the years, for various reasons. The American linguist Arika Okrent lists 500 in her book In the Land of Invented Languages which goes well beyond the usual suspects of Esperanto, Elvish and Klingon.

Constructed languages, or conlangs, have been gaining popularity in recent years, with their own society, the Language Creation Society, and annual conference. The seventh annual conference was held in July 2017 in Calgary – and even a brief look at the schedule of talks will tell you that these people take language construction extremely seriously (“(Ab)using Construction Grammar (CxG) as a Conlanging Tool”) but also have a sense of humour (“Someone from That Planet Might Be in the Audience”).

Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien created languages for Lord of the Rings – and there is a huge amount of detail on those languages for anyone with enough interest to pursue it. But in what is now widely regarded as the golden age of television, with multiple providers needing content for their channels, there is a broader scope for invention and fantasy – which is where language invention comes into its own.

The most famous example of a language created specifically for film and television is Klingon, originally created by Marc Okrand for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Klingon has since taken on a life of its own, with a Klingon Language Institute and translations of Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. More recently, HBO’s television adaptation of the Game of Thrones books required the creation of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages, for which David J. Peterson was responsible.

Talking points

While Tolkien left some fairly detailed instructions regarding the structure and vocabulary of Elvish, most authors do not go into such detail. George R.R. Martin makes reference to the languages in his Game of Thrones novels, but Peterson created them. Likewise, while Miéville gives a number of hints about the sound and structure of Illitan, there was no grammar or dictionary to refer to. Having free rein to create a language – not purely as an academic construct, but one which will be used – is both a challenge and a joy.

The primary concern for what we might term “artistic” language creators is the ease of pronunciation for the actors. If we are being asked to produce a human language, then we have the luxury of our previous study of language and linguistics to guide us. If asked to create an alien language – as Okrand was – there might be limitless possibilities, but the actors still have to be able to physically say the lines; we are constrained by human physiology. This was not an issue in the adaptation of Story of your Life by Ted Chiang (which was filmed using the title Arrival), as the aliens communicated telepathically – although the writing system had to be created by the design team.

Bilingual: David Morrissey in The City and The City.
Des Willie/BBC/Mammoth Screen

Script reading

In his novel The City and The City, Miéville tells us that Illitan uses the Roman script, having lost its original, right-to-left script “overnight” in 1923 (we’re not told how or why). We know that Borlu finds the sound of Illitan “jarring” (although we know from Miéville’s description of the character that he speaks “good” Illitan). In Besźel, meanwhile, people speak Besz, but for the purposes of the TV adaptation this is rendered as English and the written language, despite its occasional Cyrillic intrusions and diacritics (accents, for example), is still understandable to an English-speaking audience.

In order for the audience to share in Borlu’s sense of alienation in Ul Qoma, the decision was taken to use an entirely different alphabet for Illitian for the television series – and we eventually settled on the Georgian alphabet as it bears no resemblance to English.

The grammar of Illitan is made up of a mixture of Slavonic languages (such as Slovene, with its extra verb conjugation referring to two people: “we two are”, “you two are”, “they two are” as well as “we are”, “you are”, “they are”) and a system of infixes (like a prefix, but it fits into the word rather than in front of it) to denote tense and aspect. The word order remained roughly the same as English in order to help the actors know where to put the emphasis in their lines.

Maria Shraders as Quissima Dhatt.
Des Willie/BBC/Mammoth Screen

One final problem when creating a language from a novel is one familiar to any adaptation – the expectations of the audience. With any adaptation, the audience is divided into those who know the original novel and those who do not. Those who do will always have their own ideas about how the characters look and sound – and this extends to fictional language.

The ConversationMy version of Illitan will not necessarily match up with that of a fan of The City and The City, but I hope it will add something for people who are new to Miéville’s work.

Alison Long, Programme Director, Modern Languages, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: 20 000 Leagues To Be Made in Australia


The link below is to an article reporting on the next adaptation of Jules Verne’s ’20 000 Leagues Under the Sea’ to Be Made in Australia.

For more visit:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/02/australia-20000-leagues-remake-millions_n_2998068.html