Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

About a month ago, Number 1 Son told me about something that sounded almost like a parody of modern culture:  somewhere on the Internet, a group of people had done a modern version of Pride and Prejudice.  They took the characters and plot from Jane Austen's classic novel, updated them to our time, and told their story in a series of short videos, tweets on Twitter, and other Internet posts.  The whole idea seemed very odd, but Number 1 Son claimed it was good, and he normally knows what he's talking about.  So one night just before bed, I decided to see if it was any good.  At 2 A.M., I was still watching and I had been convinced.

You can see the whole thing here.  The basic set-up is that Lizzie Bennet is a 24-year-old American grad student with two sisters.  Jane (her older sister), is sweet and kind, while Lydia (her younger sister) is . . . well, let us say, more outgoing.  All three of the sisters -- but especially Jane and Lizzie -- are coming under pressure from their mother to find rich husbands.  Lizzie isn't that interested in finding a husband, but she decides to keep a video blog about her life as part of her graduate work in communications.  Twice a week, she posts short videos telling us about the latest events in her family's life.  And so we learn about how Bing Lee (a wealthy med student) has bought the house next door, and about his friend Mr. Darcy (who appears to be a big snob).

Each video is only about 3 to 5 minutes long, but that turns out to be a great length, because each video is basically a short scene in a much larger story.  At first the videos all take place in Lizzie's room at home, but as the story progresses, we follow her to other locations, each of which ties back to something in the original novel.  If you want, you can follow the story by merely watching Lizzie's diaries (100 in all), or you can also follow the tweets and videos from the other characters.  Lydia, for example, has 29 videos of her own, which she tends to make when Lizzie's not around.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole project.  And I was not alone.  Each of the videos has hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and the whole project won an Emmy Award.  Last year, the London Guardian picked The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as the best small-screen adaptation ever made of any Jane Austen novel -- even ahead of the legendary BBC production with Colin Firth.

Much of the credit for the success of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries must go to the actors, who have to perform within the tiny confines of a video blog.  Every time we see them, they are simply sitting in front of the camera.  But they do a remarkable job of projecting real personalities nonetheless.  Special credit should be given to Ashley Clements, who must carry the whole project as Lizzie.  She is onscreen almost the whole time, and must win the affections of the audience to keep people watching.  She also has to portray all of the countless emotions experienced by Lizzie over the course of the story.  Mary Kate Wiles, who plays Lydia, also deserves special praise for giving depth to a character who is often portrayed merely for laughs.  And Daniel Vincent Gordh must get credit for portraying Mr. Darcy in a way that was both consistent with all the bad things we had heard about Darcy and also likeable enough to make the audience root for him.

But most of the credit should go to Bernie Su, the Head Writer and Director.  He does a masterful job, not only of getting excellent performances from his young actors, but by turning out hour after hour of snappy dialogue.  He also had to work out all the issues presented by modernizing one of the most popular stories of all time.  As you follow the story, you realize just how many difficult decisions go into something like this.  How do you get Lizzie's parents to appear in her video diary?  (You don't; Lizzie imitates them for the camera.)  How do you find room for all five daughters from the original story?  (You cut it down to three daughters and then develop clever ways to bring Kitty Bennett and Mary Bennett -- the other two daughters from the novel -- into the story).  In the novel, Elizabeth Bennett receives a proposal from a Mr. Collins -- a tiresome Anglican priest.  What's the modern equivalent of that?  (That would be spoiling).  The choices go on and on, and if you love the novel I think you will be impressed with the thought and care that went into each of them.  If you don't love the novel -- or don't know anything about it -- you can still enjoy the story.  (Some of the folks commenting on YouTube didn't know The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was based on a book.)

I'm sure there will be people who believe that Jane Austen's masterpiece shouldn't be turned into a video blog, but personally my respect for her genius was increased.  As a guy, I tended to see the story more from the perspective of Darcy or Mr. Bennett, and I never fully appreciated the many tortures suffered by Elizabeth.  But in this version -- where we see everything from her perspective -- I can now better understand just how embarrassing and awkward she finds her situation.  At the same time, without Colin Firth's dramatic presence to distract us at the beginning of the story, one can see that Jane Austen has perfectly captured the behavior of the nervous guy with a crush:  Darcy constantly hangs around Elizabeth, and regularly drops vague remarks that are designed to draw her out, but he won't declare his feelings until he can't help himself.  This is exactly how a certain type of guy behaves when he runs into the woman of his dreams, and most girls (like Elizabeth Bennett) find it very confusing.  I give Jane Austen a lot of credit for figuring it out.

The success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has led to imitators.  Someone is doing an adaptation of Jane Eyre, which you can see here.  And Bernie Su is now working on a version of Emma.  I am very happy to see the classic novels of the 19th century getting a new lease on life in this manner.  (Vanity Fair, anyone?)  But it will be very difficult for anyone to do this sort of thing as well as it was done in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.


  1. This is outstanding.

    Mr. Toy made us Heath freshmen write modern-day sendups of Romeo & Juliet for his English class, and, man, that was hard. Mine was horrible.

    Applications are happening so quickly, and I still think it's going to be a while before it settles down at all. But it's going to be exciting once there are content creators who were born into a world with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, mobile and the various other applications that either I don't know about or that haven't been made yet--people who are as steeped in it as Jerry Seinfeld or Matt Weiner was steeped in TV--and they become old enough to commit themselves to producing stuff for money, and the business geniuses have figured out all of the ways to actually make gobs of money off all of that stuff. Obviously, there's great stuff being created even today, and maybe Bernie Su goes down as a Carl Reiner. But it's inevitable that there's a whole giant array of great stuff coming that we can't quite imagine today, and I just hope I'm not too stubborn to receive it.

    1. I agree with this. I'm very excited at the future of the humanities.