How Pemberley Digital is Doing Adaptation Right

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Actress Ashley Clements holds up a spangly pink t-shirt and wryly reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of good fortune . . . must be in want of a wife.” This is the first episode of the Pride and Prejudice web-adaptation created by Pemberley Digital, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Created by Bernie Su and Hank Green (brother of the YA author John Green whose book The Fault in our Stars has recently been made into a blockbuster movie), the web series was an experiment in adaptation.

It’s no easy feat to adapt a story that has been making an impact on people for just over 200 years. Although, that certainly doesn’t stop people from trying. There are approximately one-kajillion Pride and Prejudice remakes, adaptations, fan fictions, and book series that have tried to stay true to the original Austen novels and mirror them or continue their story lines using similar language and setting. And, with the exception of with a niche group of fanatic Janeites, these adaptations haven’t gained much traction or popularity. Yes, everyone has their favorite P&P book-to-film adaptation (Hello, Colin Firth randomly diving into the pond at Pemberley), but all the other bodice-ripping versions seem to be relegated to their singular shelf at the public library. The original is always better than the remake, right? Well, not necessarily.

Adaptation can be a tricky thing because creators (filmmakers, writers, musicians, what-have-yous) often feel like they have to live up to what people see as the “original” creation. But even if you try to create an exact copy of this primary creation, your version is likely to flop miserably. At the very least you’ll have irked fans of the original complaining about how “wrong” everything is with yours.

This disconnect between our experiences between the original work and the adaptation happens—at least in part—because when we read, watch, listen, or see a piece of art we experience it in a way that is very personal. You and I might both read Pride and Prejudice and have very different reactions. Maybe Mr. Collins reminds me of an unwanted suitor I had in college so I imagine that guy’s face and mannerisms when I read “it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept . . . I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said,” but when you read it you’re reminded of that super creepy bro who hit on you at the gym last week. This makes it virtually impossible for filmmakers or writers to perfectly create an adaptation that is universally appealing to everyone who feels a connection to the original work.

So, how do you go about adapting a beloved classic in a way that doesn’t totally suck? I say, make it your own. Any Austen adaptation that has reached a large amount of popularity on its own merit, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary or Clueless, has chosen to change the story in some way and make it relevant for modern audiences. They’re not trying to be Jane Austen, they’re  trying to tell compelling stories with relatable characters with humor, wit, and real emotion. It might be hard for modern American audiences to relate to the complicated Regency social system of landed gentry, but everyone can relate to meddling and embarrassing relatives or being mortified by something someone said without thinking. What is Thanksgiving for a single adult woman, after all, if not an opportunity for your mother to try to set you up with her dentist? This is where the creators at Pemberley Digital really excel.

In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Elizabeth Bennet has been transplanted to modern-day suburban California as a 24-year-old grad student living at home and trying to survive her crazy family. Lizzie is nerdy and humorously sarcastic—occasionally bordering on caustic—with a love of hyperbole that makes for great storytelling. Her wit, but more importantly her flaws, make her relatable and real in a way that makes you get sneakily drawn into her world . . . and subsequently watch the entire playlist of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in a sleepless 36-ish hours.

Lizzie Bennett with the infamous t-shirt Mrs. Bennett gave all of her daughters.

Lizzie Bennett with the infamous t-shirt Mrs. Bennett gave all of her daughters.

The series is set up as Lizzie’s video diaries she’s using as a sort of seminar project for her digital media courses, so most of the videos actually take place in Lizzie’s bedroom with a few set changes here and there as the story moves along. Other than the tight cast of her immediate family and pertinent friends, you don’t see anyone else on-screen. Lizzie and her friends act out the scenarios we would normally see using costumes. For example, every time Lizzie complains about her mom’s matchmaking schemes (which are hilarious, btw) she wears a giant blue hat, clip-on earrings and a shawl while affecting a hammy Southern Belle accent. We don’t even get to see Darcy until the 59th episode, but at that point viewers already feel like they know him. Viewers actually feel like they know all of the characters since the web series is highly social and interactive. The characters have Twitter accounts, Tumblrs, Pinterest profiles and more that they post on as if they were real, and they occasionally break the fourth wall by engaging with the fans. A cleverly postmodern way to literally engage with their audience and keep them hooked on whatever’s coming next.

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Lizzie Bennett and Charlotte Lu acting as Mrs. and Mr. Bennett to tell a story

The best part of the series, however, is the way they portray the relationships between the characters. Lizzie’s “best-friend-since-fetuses,” Charlotte Lu, edits the videos and provides moral support. Through their banter and squabbles Charlotte Lu seems like more of a realistic friend than even the Charlotte Lucas of Jane Austen’s novel. Jane Bennet is as sweet and as long-suffering as ever, but in this adaptation we see her come into her own as a sensitive but strong woman who isn’t afraid to stand up for what she needs. At first Lydia Bennet seems like not much more than a fabulous duck-face-selfie-taking party girl with an affinity for sparkly tops and unnecessarily abbreviating words (which by itself would still be pretty fantastic) but through her own web videos and her interactions with George Wickham, we come to see her as a loving and sensitive girl who feels lonely and excluded by her older sisters. Even the obnoxious, bookish Mary of Austen’s novel gets added depth as the emo cousin who helps teach Lydia how to have healthy caring relationships. Honestly, what’s not to love?

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Lydia Bennett and Ricky Collins playacting as offscreen Lizzie Bennett and William Darcy

For those who love Pride and Prejudice for the romance, don’t worry you’ll definitely be getting your token romantic moments that are perfect enough to make countless fangirls squee “I can’t even….!!!” in the YouTube comments section; but this adaptation is more than just a love story. It’s an adaptation that’s about growth and learning, friendship and family, satire and criticism. Just like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, really, except for the fact that almost everything about the story has been modified in some way to make it more applicable to our time.

Emma Woodhouse, her best friend Annie Taylor-Weston, and new employee Jane Fairfax. In this adaptation Jane Fairfax’s aunt, Maddie Bates, makes inedible homemade preserves (in flavors like peach, guava, turnip).

Emma Woodhouse, her best friend Annie Taylor-Weston, and new employee Jane Fairfax. In this adaptation Jane Fairfax’s aunt, Maddie Bates, makes inedible homemade preserves (in flavors like peach, guava, turnip).

The series was extremely well received (It even won an Emmy) which led Su and Green to create “Pemberley Digital”: a web media company (named after William Darcy’s fictional media company in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) that now creates other adaptations including one based on Jane Austen’s Emma called Emma Approved and a current collaboration with PBS Digital Studios to make a Frankenstein adaptation called Frankenstein, MD that turns the infamous doctor into a female medical student. Emma Approved is receiving the same praise as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (I actually prefer it) and they have taken audience involvement to a new level by using the story to literally raise money for charity in real life. In the adaptation Emma Woodhouse is a matchmaker and lifestyle coach (how perfect is that?) who strives to make the lives of the people around her better and—of course—ends up messing up more than she fixes.

These adaptations created by Pemberley Digital are great, entertaining stories even if you don’t know the source material. Which, in fact, a surprising number of viewers don’t. I enjoy scrolling through the YouTube comments and giggling with evil glee when I see someone say something like, “Wow, I really hope Emma ends up Alex instead of Frank Churchill. He’s super hot but seems kind of fake.” Little do you know, dear viewer. But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? These adaptations aren’t only good because they’re based on Jane Austen’s novels, they’re just plain good independent of whether or not you know their inspiration. And that, my friends, is how you adapt a classic.

Romance blossoming between friends. As Lydia Bennett would say, “You’re welcome for the adorbs!”

Romance blossoming between friends. As Lydia Bennet would say, “You’re welcome for the adorbs!”

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