Looking Back on a Year with the Bennets

April 3, 2013 · By Michael Andersen in Features, Update 

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Ricky Collins (Maxwell Glick), Charlotte Lu (Julia Cho), Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements), and Lydia Bennet (Mary Kate Wiles) at the final celebration, courtesy of Pemberley Digital

It’s been almost a year since Lizzie Bennet introduced herself to the internet through her video blog, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. With twice-weekly video updates serving as a voyeuristic window into Lizzie’s personal affairs, viewers were effectively invited to take up digital residence at the Bennet household. After spending so much time getting to know Lizzie’s family and friends, watching the final installment of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was like saying goodbye to old friends.

Of course, in many ways it was saying goodbye to old friends. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s much loved novel Pride and Prejudice, which recently celebrated its 200th anniversary. Over the years, I’ve witnessed Elizabeth Bennet fall in love with Fitzwilliam Darcy countless times, complemented by everything from Bollywood dance numbers to zombie attacks. With The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, co-creators Hank Green and Bernie Su sought to re-imagine the classic love story through the modern lens of YouTube.

To modernize the story, the team took more than a few liberties. While Mrs Bennet’s blatant maneuvering to secure husbands for her daughters remains as comically anachronistic as it was in Pride and Prejudice, her notions are not completely out of circulation even two centuries after Austen brought them to light. The family businesses did receive an update, evolving into online production companies like Collins & Collins and Pemberley Digital that serve as bases of operation for some of Pride and Prejudice‘s original suitors that assume roles that are just as important as the Bingley mansion at Netherfield.

Surface-level changes were made to many character names, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to connect the dots between Charles Bingley and Bing Lee, or Georgiana Darcy and Gigi Darcy. Even Mary Bennet and Kitty Bennet, who were excised from the core Bennet clan, still find their way into the narrative. The major changes arose through the challenges faced by the lead characters. For Lizzie, Charlotte, and Jane, the prospect of creating a life independent of marriage is an ever-present and essential reality, and the three finally realize that goal in new and interesting ways that challenge their relationships. While Lydia’s narrative arc still thrusts her into scandal, her character’s reaction to that scandal takes a different turn.

Embracing the vlog format, the bulk of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries videos revolve around Lizzie speaking directly into a stationary camera, holding a one-sided conversation with the viewer. Even when Lizzie is joined by Jane Bennet, Lydia Bennet, and Charlotte Lu, the attention remains focused on the viewing audience with her friends and family standing by to check Lizzie’s more extravagant claims and provide a different perspective on events. For added entertainment, Lizzie frequently coerces her guests into donning costumes for dramatic reenactments of recent conversations and events. At one point, Lizzie even convinces Darcy to reenact a scene in costume, playing himself. Looking back on the project, Bernie Su reflected that Lizzie Bennet Diaries co-creator Hank Green’s video, How to Vlog: From the Vlogbrothers was a strong influence to the show’s format and style, with its clear instructions on vlogging best practices.

While format and narrative arc both required modifications to fit in with the YouTube mold, the most extensive modification to the story came in adapting Pride and Prejudice to incorporate the sense of community that YouTube engenders. While The Lizzie Bennet Diaries‘ audience could chat with the show’s characters on Twitter and Facebook, leave video responses to the various channels,  and even ask the characters questions through frequent Q&A videos, the project remained a story. The audience could not stop Lydia from falling into scandal any more than they could prevent Lizzie and Darcy from getting together in the end. Hank Green did note that Lydia’s increased presence in the series was due entirely to the positive fan response to her portrayal, but that is inherent in the nature of responsive serial fiction.

Since some of the most intensely personal aspects of the YouTube community could not be carried over while adapting a classic novel, the characters in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries stepped in to fill that void by forming a core community beyond the main YouTube channel. To deliver on that promise of agency, the series’ transmedia focus was on building outlets for all of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries characters to have their voices heard and to allow the characters to interact with each other. Characters discussed on Lizzie’s vlog were presented through Lizzie’s heavily biased perspective, so these extensions were often the only way for the characters to reclaim ownership of their stories. And each character reclaimed ownership of their story in different ways.

In the main videos Charlotte, Jane, and Lydia were often relegated to supporting Lizzie in telling her own story. To get a better sense of each of their own personal stories, it’s necessary to look to their larger online footprint. For Lydia, that footprint took the form of a competing channel that frequently provided direct commentary on Lizzie’s videos, and introduced another side of Lydia through her interactions with Mary and Kitty on the channel. Jane’s online presence through her LookBook account helped her cultivate her interest in the fashion industry, leading to opportunities that filtered back up to the dominant narrative in the main channel. With Charlotte, the focus centered on her efforts mentoring her younger sister Maria.

Fitz William and Gigi Darcy’s online activities provided some of the most meaningful opportunities for fans, as both characters openly watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and shipped Lizzie and Darcy (“Dizzie”, as they liked to call the pair) as a couple. While fans couldn’t take concrete actions to throw the two together, Fitz and Gigi could serve as a voice for the fans through their reactions to the evolving love-hate relationship shared by the two. As the growing cast of characters met each other, their online profiles created an underlying lattice of social interactions that informed the show’s progress and added depth to the characters. Caroline Lee’s most humanizing moment in a series that generally thrust her into antagonistic roles was a Twitter conversation about her near-disasterous efforts to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for her friends. Lizzie’s main video series eventually reached 100 episodes, but additional videos from the Q&A sessions and spin-off channels resulted in over 9 hours of content across over 150 videos (as well as a host of websites and social media profiles) for the full experience. Characters even made in-character appearances at conferences like Vidcon and SXSW.

While the Lizzie Bennet fan community (often referred to as “Seahorses”) did not possess the agency to change the events of a 200 year old story, they did embrace the opportunity to interact heavily with the characters through the communication channels carved out for them in the narrative. And their creative efforts spilled out onto other platforms, with nearly every episode seeing popular moments transformed into animated gifs. Fans filmed video homages to the series, drew fan art, created Valentine’s Day cards, and set up an online discussion group enabling fans to read the book and watch the series in tandem. One fan with a sense of humor even uploaded a “Regency-era fanfic” of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries by copying and pasting the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice.

While the budding romance between Lizzie and Darcy was pivotal to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, its true strength was in fleshing out many of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice through the transmedia elements making audiences familiar with the story consider alternate readings of the source material, and new inductees to the world of Austen to turn to the text for the first time. Fans of Pride and Prejudice rarely cite Lydia Bennet, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Gigi Darcy, and Richard Collins as their favorite characters, and yet those characters were able to claim the spotlight in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Accordingly, it’s fitting that Lizzie’s last video was not the true end for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. After the last video’s surprising conclusion, many characters returned to social media for one final farewell.

Even those goodbyes do not mark a true end to our tale. Shortly before Pemberley Digital made its fictional debut in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries narrative, Hank Green and Bernie Su registered the very real corporation as a LLC that is currently raising funds to support the DVD release of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and a canonical follow-up project taking Gigi Darcy to Sanditon, California in a video series based on Austen’s unfinished novel, Welcome to Sanditon. The team is also looking to follow up The Lizzie Bennet Diaries with another full-scale adaptation of a classic novel that has yet to be identified. To date, the Kickstarter campaign has raised over $355,000, readily surpassing its target.

If you’re interested in watching the Lizzie Bennet Diaries in its entirety, here is a link for a playlist with the series and all of its related videos. Alternatively, you can visit the show’s Kickstarter page and order the full series with commentary and extras for a minimum contribution of $55. There’s even an option to purchase a Lizzie Bennet Diaries-branded version of Pride and Prejudice.

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