Monday, December 3, 2012

Of Love, Family, and Vlogs (Or "Watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Everyone")

As a former English major, I used to hear it said that there were only a few plots in all of literature, and that our job – as writers – was to make these plots original, somehow. And it’s true, when you really think about it. The story of “Pride and Prejudice,” for instance, has been told a million (it’s an estimate) times since the story originally was published. We can sit and think of countless movies where the female and male love interests began their respective stories despising one another. It’s not that the plot itself is simple, because it is not. The characters aren’t simple, either. The reason that producers continue to create romantic comedies with similar premises are because the emotions and situations are universal, not simple.

My reason for writing this blog entry is not to convince you that you should watch romantic comedies (though you should, because they can be a lot of fun). I’d simply like to introduce you to the latest version of “Pride and Prejudice” to captivate audiences: “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.”

[I have to note: my best friend Karlee (@karleetron) is the one who initially introduced me to this wonderful YouTube sensation. I began watching the early episodes and sadly fell behind, until I marathoned them all within the span of less than twenty-four hours. … yes, that happened. So, props to Karlee for introducing me to this show!]

I’ve heard you talk about “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” So… what are they, exactly?

This particular twist on the story of “Pride and Prejudice” is shot as a modern day vlog. It stars Ashley Clements (my new Community and Doctor Who-lovin’ bestie on Twitter – follow @TheAshleyClem!) as Lizzie Bennet, Master's student studying Mass Communications. With her best friend Charlotte Lu as her faithful producer and editor, Lizzie documents the antics of her crazy family, including a carefree and extremely energetic younger sister named Lydia and a sweet-tempered, kind older sister named Jane.

Lizzie’s videos begin as a way to document her mother’s constant obsession with marrying off her daughters, but turn into a story of her life – a story of the uncertainty and triumphs of herself and her family. As she says in one of the later videos, the vlogs take on lives of their own.

Slowly but surely, more characters are introduced into Lizzie’s life and the lives of her viewers – the suave and handsome George Wickham, the dedicated Ricky Collins, the seemingly-innocent Caroline Lee, and the do-gooder whose manners and temperament match Jane Bennet’s – Bing Lee. Each of these figures impact Lizzie’s life and the lives of those around her. They reveal qualities about Lizzie and themselves. Ricky Collins often tests Lizzie’s patience, but she comes to respect him for who he is as a person (… well, not ALL the time).

But there is one character who the viewers have heard more about than any other: William Darcy. It is wildly clear that Lizzie dislikes Darcy. He’s snobbish and arrogant. He considers himself to be of a higher social standing than those around him, and is stoic in stature and manners.

Needless to say, for more reasons than the fact that Darcy said that she was “decent enough,” Lizzie dislikes him.

So, it sounds like a good web series, I guess. Still, why should I watch ANOTHER adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”? Aren’t there enough already?

I’ll answer your unasked questions in reverse.

No, there can never be too many adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Feel free to disagree with me, but I feel that Jane Austen’s novel is one of the most successful romantic plotlines to date, and is – in fact – a story that has been carried on throughout hundreds of years and told in just as many ways. And the sheer fact that it is STILL being told today (through “27 Dresses,” “Down With Love,” and “The Notebook”) means that the story has transcended generations and mediums, and will to come.

So there can never be too many versions of the story.

(Unless they’re just terrible renditions. Just kidding.)

Why you should watch this particular adaptation is really three-fold: a) because of the unique storytelling and medium, b) because of the acting, c) because of the writing.

What’s so different about this version of “Pride and Prejudice”?

The way that Hank Green and his team of writers chose to tell a classic love story is through a modern and very unique method – a video blog. Now, this means of communication between Lizzie and her viewers provides a fresh, unique perspective on the story we have all come to know nearly by heart. We, the viewers, see what Lizzie allows us to see – we follow her to VidCon and to the Lee residence, and to Collins & Collins.

We KNOW Lizzie Bennet.

We know Lizzie Bennet better than any other rendition of the story, I would argue. Since we hear and see from her perspective, we understand her life clearly and we know her likes, dislikes, fears, and triumphs. And we’re beginning to see her grow as she learns the true motives of Caroline, Darcy, and Wickham. We trust or dislike these characters solely based on what our heroine allows us to see. Therefore, it is all the more poignant when we watch Lizzie struggle or change her opinions – the viewers pick up on the nuances of her character, on the slow and subtle transitions in personality and attitude.

The viewers may not know everything about Lizzie Bennet (such as what was in Darcy’s letter), but they feel connected to her very deeply and cheer for her as a heroine.

That is, of course, not to say that Lizzie is without fault. She is quick to place prejudice on others (see: Darcy), even though she chastises the man for a similar offense, in addition to his pride. She’s a bit impulsive sometimes, and though cynical about men and relationships, deeply desires to find someone trustworthy and loyal. Lizzie is flawed, and with the modern vlog format, we are able to see every situation and event from her perspective – we learn when she makes fun of Darcy, when she gripes and complains about her mother, and when she hurts, we hurt all the more. A vlog is an intimate form of communication: it allows viewers access into the deepest and most personal aspects of Lizzie’s life. So it makes sense that we feel more connected to her in this rendition of the story than any other.

Additionally, each character on the show has their own Twitter account (much like the Community characters do), and tweet about events that correspond with the vlogs (which also occur real-time, which is a nice touch). Additionally, some characters have their own Tumblr accounts as well. The inclusion of social media really provides a unique spin on the “Pride and Prejudice” story. What happens if Darcy knows how much Lizzie disdains him because he’s seen her videos?

There is an entirely fresh, intriguing layer to the story. And it makes “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” worth watching.

Are the actors in this web series any good? It seems like it’d be a really serious show. “Pride and Prejudice” wasn’t really a comedy, after all.

You’re right, in a way. Though it’s hard to argue that “Pride and Prejudice” is a complete and total comedy, the story DOES have some pretty comedic moments. In the modern-day adaptation, there are more funny moments than anything else. The entire character of Lydia, for example, inspires laughter. She’s crazy, weird, and loud. Lizzie Bennet’s audience loves her vivacious personality.

Lizzie is a hilarious character in general too. She enjoys mimicking her family members (and Darcy) by dressing up as them and performing a costume theatre, of sorts. Lizzie never really takes herself too seriously and is a lively and energetic vlogger because of it.

But, in spite of the hilarity (and there are some really great moments – Episode 14: “I Suck At Video Games” is the first that comes to mind), each of these actors are brilliant at what they do, especially considering the fact that they are performing in vlog format and usually restricted to one position in one setting.

I thoroughly enjoy each actor in the show. Ashley Clements is a fantastic Lizzie Bennet (and I’d say that even if she wasn’t my new bestie), because she is fantastically nuanced in her facial expressions, comedic timing, and – because the audience is so emotionally invested in her as well – scenes that dictate her to be serious or intense are always spot-on. The introduction of Daniel Vincent Gordh as William Darcy was nothing short of perfect. The staccato and stoic way that he delivers lines is completely reminiscent of the stiff, proper Darcy from the novel. From the way he dresses, too, the viewers get the sense that he is a classic gentleman. Moreover, the emotion that he displays briefly (the flicker of a smile when he says “I don’t care about that” in Episode 61, for instance) when in the presence of Lizzie humanizes him and causes the audience to empathize with him as a character and love interest.

Finally – in spite of the fact that I love and adore the entire cast and their acting – Mary Kate Wiles provides such a unique and endearing version of Lydia Bennet that we often forget that she, too, is human. The audience is accustomed to viewing Lydia as Lizzie’s wild and boy-crazy younger sibling, so that when Lydia is heart-broken, she is humanized and the audience feels a pang of sympathy for her character. This is a completely new layer to Lydia, since the Lydia Bennet in the novel is a bit less prone to sympathy or empathy. But we forget that every character is human, in spite of flaws and hang-ups.

All right – I guess it seems like an interesting twist on a classic tale. And you’ve mentioned that the actors are good. What about the writing?

The entire team of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” is fantastic at what they do. They manage to, in a span of about three to four minutes (that is roughly how long each episode is) construct a developed story and intriguing and unique plot. When you adapt a story that is as familiar as “Pride and Prejudice,” you have to acknowledge that 90% of your audience, if not more, already knows the details of the story itself. No one who has any knowledge of the plot would be surprised to discover that the vlog-verse Lizzie Bennet begins her narrative by despising William Darcy.

Hank Green and company did not need to create new plot twists – they needed to modernize them, and make them just as accessible and fresh as the original story’s in order to maximize impact and audience investment. The reason so many people return to stories like “Pride and Prejudice” is not because they are unsure of how the stories will end (most of us walk into romantic comedies already knowing that the couple who initially hate one another will end up together, after all), but because the tale itself – the central plot – is so timeless that it transcends mediums and generations.

The duty of the writers is to create believable, humanized versions of the characters in the book, while also peppering the tale with intrigue. Just because viewers know that Lizzie will wind up falling in love with Darcy doesn’t mean they know HOW this particular version of the snappy Bennet sister will arrive at that revelation. Even though we, as the audience, are aware of the twists and turns that this story will take as it unfolds, the writers still provide enough mystery and intrigue and plot tweaks to keep us entertained and engaged.

Take, for example, the twist of Charlotte becoming Mr. Collins’ business associate (rather than his wife, as in the book) or Jane’s move to Los Angeles (rather than London). While some plot points remain similar (Darcy’s fundamental reasons for breaking up Bing and Jane), the writers are able to craft “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” so that a classic tale still remains a classic, and yet continues to capture the attention of audiences without dousing us all in over-familiarity.

Make no mistake: “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” is an adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” but it is not a carbon copy. And this, my friends, is a good thing.

Fine, fine. You’ve convinced me to watch “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” So, what’s next?

Catch up on all of the episodes of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” by viewing through their YouTube channel. Make sure to watch them in order! New episodes are uploaded every Monday and Thursday at 9 AM PT (that’s noon, EST).

Additionally, follow the lovely and talented cast on Twitter:

@TheAshleyClem – Lizzie Bennet
@mkwiles – Lydia Bennet
@itslauraspencer – Jane Bennet
@thatjuliacho – Charlotte Lu
@danielvgordh – William Darcy
@maxwellglick – Ricky Collins
@christophersean – Bing Lee
@jessicajandres – Caroline Lee
@wesanderhold – George Wickham
@sircraigfrank – Fitz Williams
@janice_s_lee – Maria Lu

And happy viewing! :)

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