in Web Series

Old Stories, New Tellers: How Modern Web Series Are Changing Classics

It all started with a girl looking into camera with a wry smile, and beginning, ‘My name is Lizzie Bennet’…

And so, a now iconic YouTube series was born, and the beginning of an entire new sub-genre of online content was created, slotting neatly beside the Netflix and Amazon-only productions of shows. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was the first major production of the appropriately-monikered Pemberley Digital studios, a production company whose niche of taking classic works of literature and transforming them into readily-accessible, addictive chunks of storytelling for online viewers to binge on and enjoy, has become a revolution in the way that we view modern media vehicles such as YouTube and classics such as Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and even Frankenstein.

For long, YouTube has been seen as a place where people complain and do stupid Internet stunts. Recently, however, YouTube has moved beyond that, using the potential of an accessible, free platform, to rise on the global stage as a purveyor of quality entertainment. Rising YouTube stars such as Zoella, Sprinkle of Glitter, and PewDiePie have become superstars, dominating global stages and conferences. It only stands to reason that the platform would become a place for new TV shows to spread their creative wings.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, based off Jane Austen’s flawless classic, Pride & Prejudice, follows the journey of Lizzie Bennet, here transformed from a young woman in 19th century England into a spunky 24-year-old American grad student, struggling to find her place in the world. The adaptation provides more than a mere glossy shine; racial and sexual diversity are key here, with key roles played by actors of colour, and a new character Fitz Williams is black and gay and a welcome addition.

From the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, other adaptations have sprung forth, in notable new directions. Spin-off web-series Welcome to Sanditon follows the original adventures of Gigi Darcy (Georgiana Darcy, played by Allison Paige) as she heads to small-town America to test forth a revolutionary search engine and social media messenger tool, and finds much more. Sanditon is a step forward for the group, making it web-series fanfic in a way purer to original fiction, transforming a secondary character into someone with her own vehicle and her own narrative away from the original. In this way it echoes Death Comes to Pemberley which utilises characters and settings in Pride and Prejudice.

Most recently, Emma Approved, an adaptation of Austen’s Emma has proven itself to be another major hit for Pemberley Digital. Taking place in a private life coach consultancy group, Emma Woodhouse (an engaging Joanna Sotomura) is a professional busybody who changes peoples’ lives for the better – that is until her arrogance begins to spiral out of control and the lives of those around her (such as her business partner Alex Knightley, her new assistant Harriet, and her best friend Annie) are affected. In this respect, Emma Approved follows in the formula of Lizzie Bennet Diaries, except with even more connectivity towards social media with company blogs and websites established that provide canon-appropriate content for the avid fan.

The Pemberley Digital ‘family’ series of adaptations have recently expanded to include new and ongoing series, Frankenstein, MD, a web-series video-diary in which young aspiring doctor Victoria (a gender-bent Victor Frankenstein played by Anna Lore) begins her ambitious and arrogant series of experiments which seem ready to lead her down the road towards moral and ethical dilemmas. This noticeably darker addition to the web series family – they’ve already killed off a prominent off-screen character and seem to be heading down the novel’s rocky, dark path. However, how well this will translate into the context of a semi-comedic web-series remains to be seen (the comedy comes largely in part thanks to Victoria’s beleaguered and clumsy assistant Iggy, an Igor adaptation), and will this spell the future for further adaptations? A Dracula adaptation? A Jekyll and Hyde series? Only time and reaction will tell.

However, what does this all mean in terms of revolutionising these stories? The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and its ilk have effectively broken down the fourth wall for these characters and their fans, ensuring that viewers more of an involvement and a collective ownership of the show than ever before. The characters address the social media of the fans who contact them, the video-diary-blog setting making them extraordinarily accessible to new fans and old stalwarts. You can tweet Emma Woodhouse about where she finds her work ethic from, or drop a line of congratulations to Frank Churchill on his sartorial skills. That wall has been weakened; even though you know they are fictional beings portrayed by actors, the interactivity is sincere and genuine, moving it beyond sending questions to the actors and creators. This is an extraordinary feat in itself.

In that, they no longer become public property in the traditional way – viewed through the lens of a movie camera, or through the pages of their book. They become interactive figures, a step beyond the movie characters we love to love, and even though it is fiction at its purest, as the saying goes, there really is nothing stranger.