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From Classic to Contemporary: Pride and Prejudice to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries… and eventually to Austenland

Classics — whether they are novels, plays, or epics — offer us great characters, interesting plots, and lots of things for discussion… but sometimes they can be a little tough to tackle. Sometimes we adore them, but sometimes we can’t get past page 3, let alone the requisite 50. That doesn’t mean that we should give up what they have to offer, though, does it? Many of today’s authors try to use these classic works as a starting-off point to write a more modern version. If done well, these contemporary versions can have a huge impact and impart the same wisdom that made the earlier story gain its classic status. Jessica Pryde and I decided to find and examine some great pairs of classics and their contemporary rewrites to see if they are successful… or maybe not.

prideandprejudice2The Classic: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

In one of the most quoted and famous novels of all time, Miss Elizabeth Bennet makes astute observations about the societal structures in place around her while simultaneously trying to avoid her mother’s attempts to marry her off to an appropriate man.  While encouraging her elder sister’s romantic attachment to a very eligible bachelor, Lizzie meets his friend, Mr. Darcy, and the two immediately come to detest one another.  Through a series of unfortunate interactions and the verbal machinations of others, Lizzie’s hatred for Darcy continues to deepen and when he unexpectedly proposes, she refuses.  When her youngest sister, Lydia, elopes with a dashing, but devious soldier, Mr. Darcy covers the scandal and sees them properly wed.  Upon these actions, Lizzie knows that Mr. Darcy truly must care for her and she must admit to her own growing feelings for him.

Contemporary #1: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries 

lizzie bennetBernie Su and Hank Green’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice utilized the internet’s multi-media platforms in a ground-breaking way.   Now concluded, viewers can visit the LBD webpage and view the story from the beginning, watching YouTube videos, following Twitter conversations and even visiting Tumblr along the way.  As mentioned by Erin Daly in her post, “Three Unconventional Jane Austen Adaptations,” Su and Green’s Lizzie Bennet (played by Ashley Clements) was re-imagined as a graduate student and the middle daughter in a family ruled by a social-climbing, mostly well-meaning, matriarch. In the midst of obtaining her Masters in Communications, Lizzie sets out to film her diaries as a vlog project for school.  Each of these five-minute videos was posted to YouTube, at a pace of two a week, and allowed viewers to dive right into Lizzie’s feelings about the people and events in her life.

Following the general story of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie and her two sisters, Jane (Laura Spencer) and Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles), meet Bing Lee and his family and their whole world gets turned upside down.  Bing Lee (Christopher Sean), an aspiring medical student, falls in love with Jane, an aspiring fashion designer (you can see her fashion tumblr here) but his best friend, William Darcy (Daniel Vincent Gorth) ends up interfering and Jane’s left with a broken heart.  Lizzie spends months becoming more and more distrustful towards Darcy, especially when the handsome swimmer George Wickham (Wes Aderhold) gets involved. When Darcy confesses his love to her, Lizzie cannot help but splutter in shock and staunchly refuse to have anything to do with him.

It’s not until Lizzie unwittingly takes an amazing internship at Darcy’s company, Pemberly Digital, that she gets to know his sister, Gigi (Allison Paige), his other best friend, Fitz (Craig Frank), and a new side to the somewhat dour-appearing William Darcy. Seeing Lizzie warm to Darcy, George Wickham, he seduces her younger sister, Lydia, and then attempts to humiliate her by posting a sex tape lizzie and darcyonline.  Thankfully, as in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is able to save the day, though in this modern adaptation, Lydia and George are not forced to marry.  Almost one year after the original vlog entry is posted, Lizzie’s modernized story concludes with a rousing night celebrating with friends, family, and of course, her boyfriend… but not boss, Darcy. Through his actions to save Lydia, Lizzie is finally convinced that though it took her time to decipher her true feelings for him and he had plenty of trouble expressing them, Darcy’s feelings never wavered.

Ashley Clements’ portrayal of Lizzie Bennet brings just the right tone of sarcastic humor to this modernization.  Her best friend, Charlotte (Julia Cho) is compassionate, intelligent, and skilled at handling difficult personalities, which at times can include Lizzie! Another shining star of this adaption is Lizzie’s younger sister, Lydia.  The party girl not only creates her own vlog that showcases her fun, outgoing personality, but also evokes massive sympathy with a great performance as her life spirals out of control.  The subplot dealing with Lydia’s scandal is actually one that could be ripped from today’s headlines, reminding viewers how relevant the original Austen tale still is in today’s society.

By allowing viewers to experience this timeless classic through various multimedia platforms, Su and Green tapped into a previously unimaginable way to participate in the story.  Not only did the actors create the vlog “episodes” and post photos on tumblr or Twitter, but fans who were following the diaries in real time were able to actually interact with the characters, dispensing advice, asking questions, or commiserating as the occasion needed.  As Austen is known for making astute observations about the societal expectations of her time, Su and Green endeavored to transform Lizzie’s story into a commentary on the Internet age. Pearls of wisdom like “the Internet is forever,” are sprinkled throughout the story. Real life wisdom, such as recognizing that anonymity on the internet can allow people to be more free with their callous comments or that people will start to disassociate your “online persona” from your true personage, ring utterly true with viewers.  In fact, Bernie Su and Hank Green’s team won a 2013 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Interactive Media, proving that even the media world recognized the amazing feat that was this new foray into contemporary storytelling.

With the success of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Su and Green have since reimagined Austen’s final, unfinished novel, Sanditonby sending Gigi Darcy to the California beach town in Welcome to Sanditon.  Next they are tackling, Emma Approved, a modernization of Austen’s Emma, and I cannot wait to participate as it unfolds, which should be starting in just a few short weeks!

My C2C partner-in-crime, Jessica Pryde, and I are also both stoked to go see another great modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that just hit movie theaters.  Austenland, based on Shannon Hale’s novel of the same title, follows a young woman, obsessed with the fictional Mr. Darcy, as she spends travels to a themed-resort that recreates the Regency era in search of a man to match the ultimate standards that she sets… in other words, a man like Darcy.

– Jessica Miller, currently reading The Diviners by Libba Bray and The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.

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Jessica Miller