The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: What Made it Click?
After countless adaptations featuring tight corsets, big dresses, and proper etiquette, it was hard to picture Jane Austen’s novels as anything other than material for British mini-series. Yet, Pride and Prejudice has found its way onto the Internet with enough changes to make the story up-to-date but still recognizable in a reimagined web series titled: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (LBD). In the series, Lizzie Bennet is a 24 year old grad student living at home with “a mountain of student loans” and a mother who obsesses over her daughters’ love lives. Lizzie reveals all of this in her video diaries – a school project created with help of her best friend, Charlotte Lu. Despite the daunting circumstances Lizzie finds herself in, the LBD manages to balance a light, comedic tone with the help of dramatic enactments and funny observations.
Lizzie Bennet has sparked a new trend of classic retellings all over YouTube. Since the conception of her videos, there have been others like it following suit including; The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, Frankenstein M.D., and Emma Approved. YouTube comments show young people developing an interest in classic literature and excitement at the appearance of familiar names. However, nostalgia is only one of the many reasons The Lizzie Bennet Diaries clicked with modern audiences.
It isn’t every day that one gets to interact with their favorite characters. The LBD gives viewers an opportunity to connect with characters that at one point felt as if they lived worlds away. Thanks to YouTube, fans are able to be involved in the lives of Austen’s characters in a way they couldn’t be with books and television. Furthermore, viewers are valued and contributing members of the community, acting almost as a virtual family for the creator. They live Lizzie’s life with her, empathizing with her struggles and celebrating her successes with her.
Other web series like Emma Approved also took this approach by using the same platform; however, it wasn’t nearly as successful as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Emma treats her videos as a record of her professional life and mentions that her videos are supposed to be turned into a documentary, so her communication with her audience throughout the series is mostly one-sided. Lizzie, on the other hand, keeps a familiar tone with her viewers and all her conversations with her family and friends felt more natural.
It didn’t just stop at YouTube. One could reach Lizzie on other websites such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. People could ask her questions and find out exactly who this 21st century Bennet girl was like. Additionally, events such as VidCon made The Lizzie Bennet Diaries more engaging by letting Lizzie’s audience talk to her face to face. Bernie Su, the director of the web series, commented on the accessibility in an interview:
“When the show was running, you (as a viewer) could talk to the characters and they could talk back to you. You could be part of their stories.” (388)
Other Perspectives and Re-imagined Characters
Lizzie’s narrative expands with the addition of other character’s social media accounts and viewers begin to see that Pride and Prejudice isn’t restricted to just Lizzie’s experiences. One can follow the stories of other characters; Charlotte Lu, Bing Lee, George Wickham, Gigi Darcy, and the rest of the Bennet sisters. This way the web series constructs its own small, virtual world for people to explore and immerse themselves in. By scrolling through Jane’s Pinterest for instance, one could tell what she’s going through based on what she likes during her arc.
Where Pride and Prejudice focused more on Lizzie and Darcy’s budding romance, the web series spends more time exploring Lizzie’s relationships with her sisters and her friends. Viewers get to see how Lizzie’s relationship with them evolves throughout the series and the changes various characters go through. One of the most dramatic scenes comes from Lizzie’s interactions with her youngest sister, Lydia. In the beginning, Lizzie belittles her younger sister but slowly learns to overcome her bias as Lydia becomes less vulnerable and more confident.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia is written off as annoying and superficial with very little sympathy offered by her family when she is stuck with George Wickham. The web series gives her depth and demonstrates that just because someone enjoys partying doesn’t mean they are shallow or unintelligent. This fact shows that the writers respect the teenaged viewers that relate to Lydia and wrote her with as much effort and care as they wrote everyone else. It’s nice to see that the LBD failed to antagonize the “party girl” – a move made in many YA books and movies to make the main character look better by comparison.
The inclusion of other perspectives is acknowledged by Su:
“I learned to embrace alternate points of view. It goes back to the adage that everyone is a hero of their own story, even the antagonists. Yes, characters need to serve plot points, but why are they there – what are they really like as people?” (388)
The diverse cast is another wonderful addition to the series and provides a more accurate depiction of the modern world. They also took on major roles that leaned away from the typical stereotypes. The novel adaptation, The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, apart from giving side characters bigger roles to play, expanded upon each individual. Caroline Lee, for instance, often reduced to the spoiled brat, was shown to be more sympathetic in the book when her actions are explained.
The Modern Lizzie Bennet
There are many questions writers must ask themselves when updating an old story: what would happen if Elizabeth Bennet had internet access? How would she fit into a 21st century environment? What is her relationship to education? There are certain traits that make Lizzie who she is despite the time period she’s in. In the novel, Lizzie’s independence and intelligence are defining traits in her character and remain consistent within the web series. However, in the 21st century, Lizzie finds herself able to focus on a career and education that wouldn’t have been an option 200 years ago. The plot in both works mirror each other even with this big change which makes the series more compelling when comparing the similarities between major plot points.
Modern Lizzie and Elizabeth Bennet act as a voice for their respective generations. The wealthy makes up a small percentage of the population and with the rise of the middle class in the 19th century, Elizabeth’s plights became relatable for a larger group of people. Lizzie voices another concern many students share today – an uncertain economic future. She doesn’t feel comfortable leaving her environment, she doesn’t know what career to pursue, and she feels attached to technology. These traits stir up empathy in the average young adult viewer.
Something borrowed, something new, is one of the best ways to describe the series. The modern updates make the characters more relatable while still letting them keep the traits that leave them identifiable. But in the end, whether you are an Austen veteran or someone who has never picked up an Austen book in their life, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries has something for everyone.
Su, Bernie, Kate Noble, and Jane Austen. The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print.
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