So, as I was saying last week, I’ve been rereading some classic literature this year, and what inspired me to pick up Pride and Prejudice was how much I’ve been enjoying the YouTube adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. In this series (which by now comprises 90 episodes, usually about four minutes long, and has taken us a bit more than three-quarters of the way through the plot of Pride and Prejudice), Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet is a twenty-first century grad student in Mass Communications. Too poor to move out on her own, she lives at home with her two sisters, Jane and Lydia, a charming if somewhat detached father, and a mother whose constant obsession is seeing her daughters married, ideally to wealthy men. Oh, and it all takes place in California.
The synopsis makes it sound like it could be a nightmare for serious Austenophiles (a group in which I don’t include myself). But in fact, the modernization is so fresh, fun and well-done that it’s won the admiration of a large body of fans (well over 150,000 YouTube subscribers), many of whom are huge fans of the original source material and who like what the writers and actors are doing with Austen’s story.
Changes are inevitable, of course. Families of five being unusual in this day and age, there are just three Bennet sisters (bookish, ponderous sister Mary has been transformed into bookish, insightful cousin Mary, while Kitty becomes the family cat with absolutely no loss to the story, as Kitty Bennet does virtually nothing in P&P). Appropriately for twenty-first century California, there’s a bit more racial diversity in the mix: Charlotte Lucas is now Charlotte Lu, and is not just Lizzie’s friend but also the skilled video producer who edits Lizzie’s vlogs (and ultimately goes to work for, rather than marrying, the still-pompous Mr. Collins at his digital media company, Collins & Collins). Charles Bingley, the wealthy neighbour Jane Bennet falls in love with, is now wealthy medical student Bing Lee (still with a scheming sister Caroline). Darcy’s amiable cousin Colonial Fitzwilliam is now Darcy’s amiable (and dreadlocked) friend Fitz, who is removed from the romantic machinations of the plot not by financial considerations (in P&P, Elizabeth admires Colonel Fitzwilliam but he frankly tells her that because of his position as a younger son he is obligated to marry a wealthy woman, which puts him out of the running for any of the Bennet sisters and which Elizabeth accepts as a simple fact), but by a more modern twist: he’s gay. And George Wickham is not a militia officer but the coach of a college swim team.
Despite all the changes in trappings, the characters are, at their core, essentially the same people. Jane Bennet, in her new guise as an aspiring fashion designer, is still the sweetest human being and the kindest big sister imaginable. Lizzie remains smart, funny, sharp-tongued and a bit cynical, prone to judging too quickly and listening too little. William Darcy is still wealthy, aloof, attractive, arrogant, generous, and so socially awkward you want to suggest he needs a little therapy. And Lydia Bennet, the character I find most intriguing in this remake, appears at first to be a perfect modern translation of book-Lydia. Substitute partying, picking up guys at clubs, drinking and recreational drug use for her nineteenth-century counterpart’s obsession with buying bonnets and flirting with officers, and you seem to have the same Lydia as ever. In the early Lizzie Bennet videos, Lydia bursts into the her sister’s vlogs with a voice and attitude that seem to perfectly echo the self-centred narcissism of Book-Lydia. Even when she begins shooting and posting her own vlogs it takes awhile to see that there might be something beneath the party-girl exterior. It’s with the development of Lydia’s character that I first began to think of the whole Lizzie Bennet phenomenon as “brilliant” rather than just “entertaining.”
I say “the whole Lizzie Bennet phenomenon” because one of the most intriguing things about this series is how the creators use social media to tell the story. The premise is that Lizzie makes twice-weekly vlogs chronicling events in her own and her family’s life: other characters (Jane, Lydia, Charlotte, Bing, Caroline, Mr. Collins, Wickham, Fitz, Darcy and his sister Gigi) occasionally appear in Lizzie’s vlogs, while some of these same characters and others we never see onscreen (primarily the Bennet parents, since almost everyone else has appeared in the videos by now) are represented by Lizzie dressing up in costume and satirizing them (often roping others into doing “costume theatre” with her). You could watch all 90 of Lizzie’s videos and follow the main thread of the story without needing any other information, but for the benefit of more obsessive fans, each of the characters has Twitter accounts and some also have Tumblrs and Pinterest boards. And of course they’re all on Facebook.
In addition, Lydia has a substantial series of spin-off videos, while two other minor characters, Maria Lu and Gigi Darcy, have had more short-lived video series (Gigi’s videos were particularly crucial in revealing a key plot point). Fans can choose to what extent they wish to engage with the “transmedia” aspects of the story and enjoy added value (like Gigi’s Instagram snaps of herself, Lizzie and Darcy touring San Francisco while Lizzie is interning at Darcy’s company, Pemberley Digital).
Telling the story through the medium of vlogs and other social media forces us to call into question the conventions of storytelling in a way we rarely do with novels. When Austen released Pride and Prejudice exactly 200 years ago, the English novel was a relatively new art form, and writers were still to some extent working out the bugs of how this type of narrative worked. Austen told her novels using the invisible third-person narrator who would soon become so familiar to novel-readers, but in earlier drafts of Sense and Sensibility she played around with the epistolary form that had been so popular in novels of the previous century (like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela). Charlotte Bronte, writing 30 years later than Austen, used a first-person narrator who is keenly aware of her audience, addressing them directly with the famous line, “Reader, I married him.”
We have become so used to novels as a way to tell stories that we rarely ask ourselves (as I did when reading The Bobbsey Twins at age 10) “How can this narrator know everything that happened and be able to report all these private conversations word for word?” Today only the most literary of authors bother to play around with or draw attention to these familiar storytelling conventions: most writers and readers treat them as given.
The Lizzie Bennet fandom can be counted on for at least one good online argument after almost every video is posted (particularly in recent weeks as the plot has intensified) centring around the question, “Why would Lizzie post this on the internet?” If we suspend our disbelief and treat these as if they are a real young woman’s vlog posts, then troubling questions arise about whether she is violating her friends’ and family members’ privacy by posting the vlogs, sometimes without the permission or knowledge of the people who appear in them. These questions are addressed to some degree in the vlogs themselves, but are the subject of far more heated debates among fans (and became even more pointed when Gigi Darcy’s videos, ostensibly corporate promotional videos designed to highlight a new “storytelling app” called Domino, began revealing private conversations with her brother, with Fitz, and with George Wickham). The answer is, of course: these videos have to be posted in order to tell the story. Telling a story in a new way raises new questions about the process of storytelling itself and the conventions we all take for granted. (How old were you when you noticed that when people on TV sit down to dinner, they all sit on the same side of the table?).
Releasing the story as a bi-weekly series in a forum that allows for significant viewer interaction (much more so than with television, for example) is both contemporary and oddly traditional. Jane Austen’s novels were published as complete books, but other nineteenth-century authors, like Dickens and Trollope, released many of their stories as newspaper serials, which meant that the stories unfolded before readers’ eyes much as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are unfolding for viewers, with the accompanying back-and-forth of reader response and opinions – which in the nineteenth century generally took the form of obsessive super-fans writing letters to the author begging him or her to get the reader’s favourite couple together or kill off the villain.
Telling a story in this way in today’s social-media environment gives viewers unprecedented ability to respond, and they do, in floods of comments on each video as well as on Twitter and in other social media. (And, of course, as I am doing on this blog). I’d love to know how much, if at all, the direction of the story has been affected by viewer response. Obviously the creators had Austen’s novel as their basic template, though they’ve shown that they’re not afraid to deviate from her plot, and the overall story arc must have been well in place when the project started. But have any developments been influenced by audience response? I’d particularly like to know whether Mary Kate Wiles’ brilliant portrayal of Lydia, and the degree to which many viewers fell in love with her, influenced the way her storyline developed.
It’s Lydia’s story that makes the most significant deviation (so far) from Austen’s plot, and draws our attention most sharply to the feminist questions underlying the novel and any attempt to update it for today’s world and today’s woman. This, to me, is the most intriguing aspect of this series, but as this blog post is already far too long, I’ll continue this exploration in a second blog post later this week.