Those who know me are well aware that I’m a huge fan of all things Jane Austen – I have read her novels countless times. I’m a great admirer of both her wit and her ability to breathe life into her characters, whom she endows with many excellent and noble qualities, but also with foibles and weaknesses that make them real and, somehow, even more endearing. I’m also something of a period drama junkie, especially when it comes to adaptations of books I love, even if I’m all too often frustrated by screenwriters’ omissions, additions and alterations.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a brand new adaptation of Jane Austen’s famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. Over the last few decades this novel, even more than Austen’s other works, has been adapted over and over again for film and TV, to the point where many of us are starting to wonder if anything new can be gleaned from it. This particular reimagining is set not in Regency England, but in 21st century America, a significant shift that may deter the most hardened Janeites. I was sceptical myself at first, but was surprised to find that the change of setting does not detract too much from the novel’s brilliance, and actually enables the writers to develop Austen’s characters in any number of refreshingly hilarious ways.
But I have yet to explain what makes The LBD special. It’s not a film or a TV miniseries; instead, it’s a fictional video blog, or ‘vlog’, with two brief episodes broadcasting every week from Lizzie’s personal YouTube channel. The idea of adapting a novel into vlog form is completely new, and it’s also, when you think about it, completely ingenious. The narrator function is filled by Lizzie herself, with her sisters and her best friend Charlotte Lu on hand to point out when she’s letting her prejudices get the better of her and even (on occasion) to hijack her vlog to set the record straight if they think Lizzie isn’t being completely honest. With the exception of Lizzie and co’s recent trip to Vidcon, all the videos are shot as if from Lizzie’s bedroom, but we still get to hear about everything that’s going on outside the room and even to see it in the form of hilarious re-enactments. The success of the format is readily apparent from the hundreds of YouTube comments on every episode, with an extraordinarily high number of people treating the series as a genuine vlog about real people – not just because they haven’t read the novel (although that is often the case), but also because it’s just more fun that way.
The other half of the project takes this interactive element to a whole new level, harnessing the power of social media to bring an extra dimension to the series. The LBD doesn’t begin and end with the vlog itself. Instead, the main YouTube channel is flanked by numerous subsidiary accounts, which together enable the show’s viewers to follow the characters across a diverse range of platforms. So, how does it work? Well, as a member of YouTube I like to be informed when a new video is uploaded, so naturally I began by subscribing to “LizzieBennet” on YouTube. I’m also a Twitter user, so I can talk to Lizzie and Charlotte (@TheLizzieBennet and @TheCharlotteLu respectively) or just watch as “Bing Lee” (@bingliest) interacts with his sister Caroline (@that_caroline) and, of course, his friend Darcy (@wmdarcy). Then there’s Tumblr, where I can see hilarious animated gifs of Lydia Bennet high-fiving the camera at thelydiabennet.tumblr.com, and the fashion-conscious Jane’s Lookbook full of chic vintage outfits (lookbook.nu/looksbyjane). The sheer effort involved in maintaining all these social media accounts is to be commended, especially when it has proven so effective in enabling the characters literally to speak to their viewers. The use of alternative platforms, like the videos in which Lizzie herself is not present, also allows us to see into her world from the perspectives of the other characters, which is very useful when our heroine is so notoriously judgemental.
Still, unlike many viewers I’ve been content to see only four characters (Lizzie, Jane, Charlotte and Lydia) in the vlog itself until very recently, when Mr Collins showed up unexpectedly at Vidcon. This is mainly because I find their impersonations of everyone else so hilarious. If we ever get to see the real Darcy, I don’t expect he’ll be anywhere near as funny as Lizzie’s snobbish, bow-tie wearing hipster or Jane’s endearingly shy fake-texter with a crush. Similarly, I’ve grown extremely fond of Lizzie’s representation of her mother as a fully paid-up member of the “2.5 WPF club”, which of course stands for “2.5 kids and a white picket fence”. Now Mrs Bennet’s larger-than-life personality and fondness for melodrama are matched by an enormous hat and a perfect Southern accent as she drawls about her “hopeless, pathetic, single daughters.” In fact, there seems to be a pattern emerging; many of the characters with whom I find it difficult to sympathise in the novel have turned out to be the most entertaining in the webseries. For instance, much as I enjoy watching Ashley Clements and Laura Spencer as the new incarnations of both Lizzie and Jane, I’m afraid it’s Mary-Kate Wiles as their “younger, sexier sister Lydia” (her own words) who has completely stolen my heart with her wild antics and outrageous slang.
Now that Lizzie and Jane are staying at Netherfield though, Darcy’s appearance is surely inevitable. We have already been introduced to Mr Collins, Caroline Lee and her brother Bing, so no doubt it won’t be long before Darcy interrupts one of the sisters’ vlogging sessions. Caroline’s recent entrance under similar circumstances was made even more alarming than it would have been by the revelation that she has seen all the previous instalments of the vlog, including all Lizzie’s comments about her and Bing. As the show’s head writer Bernie Su has remarked on his behind-the-scenes blog about the series, “Caroline KNOWING about Lizzie’s vlogging is a tremendous shift. It’s a massive ripple that greatly alters every conversation/interaction that we’re adapting from the book. It also gives our Caroline a level of power that the character has never had in any version before while making her extremely fun to write for.” Jessica Jade Andres’ Caroline is delightfully scheming, so I’m looking forward to seeing what use she makes of this knowledge in future episodes.
One obvious challenge the series has encountered is that it is extremely difficult to move the plot forward while allowing the characters to develop when every episode is no more than four minutes long. It has taken a very long time to reach Lizzie and Jane’s stay at Netherfield, and Su has stated that the show will probably take a whole year to finish. In some ways this is an advantage: for example, we get to watch the events of the novel unfold almost in real time. However, those expecting a speedy resolution may well lose interest in the project long before its completion. Another difficulty is the obvious clash between the moral landscape of Regency England, where women had very few rights and pre-marital relationships were unthinkable, and that of the modern setting into which Austen’s characters have been transplanted. For example, now that flirting and, indeed, sexual promiscuity are (quite rightly) no longer guaranteed to bring disgrace upon one’s family, it is difficult to view Lizzie’s comments to and about Lydia as anything other than needless slut-shaming. In one episode our protagonist even refers to her younger sister as “a stupid, whorey slut”, a remark which provoked such an outcry that the writers were forced to issue an apology. When I read the novel I’m able to understand, and therefore to accept, Elizabeth’s views, but when removed from their context they jar noticeably on my own feminist sensibilities. Still, the writers’ apology has been accompanied by a tangible improvement; of late Lizzie’s attitude has been less judgemental, more simply worn out and exasperated by her sister’s constant hyperactivity.
Su also addresses some of these concerns in a particularly interesting blog post entitled ‘The Yay Charlotte Effect’. One aspect of the novel that he felt he had to alter in transferring it into the 21st century is that the modern incarnations of Lizzie, Jane, Charlotte et al, would have to have other concerns apart from “1. Marriage” and “2. Men”. After all, this is “a story about modern women, 2012 women. Women who are striving for higher education and/or career aspirations and/or other goals that are more than just ‘putting a ring on it’.” Much of the show’s humour derives from the fact that Mrs. Bennet still appears to be stuck in 1813 as far as her views on marriage are concerned, while her daughters are “2012 women”, who are both willing and able to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.
Contrary to my expectations, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is well on its way to becoming one of my favourite Austen adaptations of recent years. So far the project has been so successful that I’m sure it will be followed by other series in the same vein. The question is, what novel will be next? The vlog format lends itself best to stories with a central character who can act as narrator, so perhaps we can expect to see Jane Eyre and David Copperfield telling their stories to the camera. Or maybe it will be the social media element of this series that will capture someone’s imagination, with the result being Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus live-tweeting throughout June 16th. Either way, I think it likely that Lizzie’s diaries will have a far-reaching impact on the way we tell and retell stories in the Internet age.