Web series reworks Austen characters

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an interactive web series that allows viewers to follow Lizzie on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube. (credit: Screenshot courtesy of youtube.com) The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an interactive web series that allows viewers to follow Lizzie on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube. (credit: Screenshot courtesy of youtube.com)

“My name is Lizzie Bennet,” says the title character in almost each and every episode of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, usually followed by some clever catch phrase that sums up the episode. The 100th and final episode should probably have begun with, “My name is Lizzie Bennet, and while this whole web series thing is awesome, this isn’t actually Pride and Prejudice.”

The web series is an expanding form of media entertainment which entails posting videos to the Internet, usually in a set of episodes. This style of entertainment is relatively new, and has only had its own form of awards — the Streamy Awards — since 2009. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a novel that follows Lizzie Bennet as she struggles with social expectations for young women in early 19th-century Britain.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a fantastic idea. Creators Bernie Su and Hank Green took a famous and well-known tale and used it to experiment with web series, a burgeoning form of entertainment. In their version, modern-day Lizzie Bennet uploads a video twice a week, describing the events of her life and starring herself, her two sisters Jane and Lydia, and her best friend Charlotte Lu (Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas.) The Diaries are funny, light, and fun, especially in their initial episodes.

One of its biggest successes is the character of Lydia Bennet. In the novel, Lydia is silly, vapid, and vain. In the web series, Lydia is a much more vibrant and living character. She’s still a party girl, but the series does not disregard her emotions.

However, Lydia’s modern equivalent of her trip to Brighton — New Years’ in Las Vegas — was where the characterization started to go wrong. The creators turn the novel’s scandal — the unwed Lydia running away from home with a man — into an emotionally abusive relationship. This male character isolates and demoralizes Lydia in the web series, and then threatens to release an Internet video of the two of them having sex.

These two situations are not simply two versions of scandal in two separate periods. Pride and Prejudice Lydia chose her own course, in a way that Diaries Lydia does not. While Austen does not portray Lydia’s emotional state in Brighton — we only hear of it when Lizzie does, after the fact — Lydia at least had agency in the novel. She chose to run away. There is a world of difference between running away from home with a jerk and being emotionally abused. When a woman in a novel written in 1813 has more agency than a woman in a web series created in 2012, you have a problem.

But the greater issue lies in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as a retelling of Austen’s most famous novel. Pride and Prejudice is not a classic novel because of its improbable love story. How many other virtuous yet poor girls were swept off their feet by rich men in Victorian literature? And how many of them do we remember?

We remember Austen because she was one of the best satirists in the English language. She created characters that were the epitome of satirical wit: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and even Lizzie herself all represented different facets of Austen’s own culture during that period. These characters are brilliantly written, funny, and memorable on multiple levels, but they are not suitable for every age and period.

Austen’s satire is timeless, but it is not applicable to modern-day America. The differences between social norms, societal expectations, and personal hopes in early 19th-century England and early 21st-century America are vast, and Austen’s humorous critique of the former does not apply to the latter. Austen satirizes a 19th-century phenomenon: the absolute need for women to conform if they want to have financial and social stability. Though the creators do try to replicate Austen’s restrictive world — mostly by having the Bennet girls worry about college and financial security — the two situations just aren’t the same. Women today must deal with social expectations, of course, but their entire futures no longer rely on emulating such a strict ideal.

That being said, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a great example of what a web series can become. This new form of entertainment is one of the most interactive forms ever. Each of the characters in the series has his or her own Tumblr and Twitter accounts, updated regularly, and they each answer questions and comments in a variety of Q & A videos. The writers and creators of the show worked hard to make these characters as real and accessible as possible. While Pride and Prejudice may not have been the most judicious choice of a story to start out with, the web series genre has a bright future.