I always thought the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice – you know, the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle would be my favorite, but that’s before I discovered the Web series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries – a modern take on Jane Austen’s classic romantic comedy of errors about class, gender, and love.
The 100-part series of short episodes (each is about 5 minutes) follows the plot of Pride & Prejudice faithfully: the Bennet household is all a tizzy because a handsome young man moves into town, and the Bennet matriarch hopes to marry off her beautiful daughters. The modern twist is the conceit: Elizabeth Bennet is transformed from a headstrong, intelligent young English lady to a headstrong, intelligent young grad students, studying communications. As part of a school project, Lizzie shoots vlogs about the various dramas that befall on Elizabeth and her family and friends. The inclusion of the Internet brings up questions of public vs. private, and fits seamlessly into the narrative.
What I liked about the A&E version of P&P is the lavish costumes and sumptuous sets. On TLBD, the drama is contained in one room, as Lizzie and her friends report on various goings on her vlog. And in a great running joke, Lizzie plays the part of the other characters, and will often rope her friends or sisters in to play parts as well. Even though one would think the brief duration of each episode would make things feel rushed, it doesn’t – instead, it works to the show’s advantage. Part of the reason why it works is because the writers are able to condense episodes in Austen’s flawless plot into quick passages by having each vlog post deal with an issue, whether it be a romantic dilemma or tension among friends and family. In P&P, the Bennet family’s honor is put into question when the flirty Lydia is potentially “ruined” by the dashing George Wickham. On TLBD, the writers take on the issue of sexting and revenge porn and make the series topical and socially relevant.
Often when people debate the merits of various versions of P&P, the deciding factor is who plays Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are legendary, and though I think Kiera Knightly richly deserved her Oscar nomination for her turn, it’s clear that Ashley Clements is easily the best Elizabeth Bennet. The actress has crack comic timing, but is also good for the more emotional moments, as well – and even though she’s often called upon to display a range of emotions in a span of just five minutes, she’s more than up to the task. As Darcy, Daniel Vincent Gordh is a find, as well, playing the vulnerability behind the pompous facade of the character. The rest of the cast is populated by some great performers, and it’s nice to see just how the characters have been adapted to the 21st century. Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles) is a study in the pitfalls and reductive limitation of slut-shaming. Instead of judging Lydia, which Austen does on TLBD, we see the genuine depth and complexity of her character (and in her own spin-off, The Lydia Bennet, Lydia’s further rehabilitated as a character and given tragic and heroic character traits). And while Jane can be seen as insufferable because of virtue, she’s given a strong core, without forsaking the character’s innate sweetness.
Because the show is set in the 21st century, there’s a healthy diversity on TLBD. Bingley is turned into Bing Lee, a handsome Asian-American medical student (and his sister Caroline is still the steely villain). And Charlotte Lucas is turned from a practical if somewhat sad character from P&P into the smart and lovely Charlotte Lu, a computer whiz who edits Lizzie’s vlogs, and often acts as a much-needed reality check (Elizabeth Bennet’s almost-blind pride, self-regard, and self-righteousness remain). I always found the friendship between Charlotte and Elizabeth in Austen’s work to be very sad – the two young ladies are very close, at times closer than sisters, and yet once Charlotte marries the ridiculous Mr. Collins (who appears on TLBD as the entrepreneurial Mr. Ricky Collins), the friendship essentially ends. On TLBD, the two young characters go through even worse conflict that leaves a rift that is just as sad because of how close the two are.
I can’t wait to see more takes on Austen’s works (I’ve just started Emma Approved, based on my favorite book Emma) in this format. As television evolves with these new ways of bringing shows to viewers, it’s clear that Web series is more than capable of telling engrossing stories (and the brevity of the episodes in no way get in the way of depth and development). Fans of Jane Austen may balk at such a drastic retelling of the story, but they should give The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a chance – because the key to Austen’s genius was that she told tales that were timeless.