Teenagers post video diaries all the time. So why did everyone freak out about “Lonelygirl15?” The marketing is the message.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
…because it transformed the vlog format into an effective storytelling device, offering a linear narrative and a complex web of character arcs based on viewer interest. Bernie Su and Hank Green’s "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" relied on the literary pedigree of Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice" rather than the reality hoax of "Lonelygirl15" to find a wide audience for their web series. "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" made great use of transmedia narratives, creating social media accounts for the characters, spin-off vlogs and fan engagement events. The creators also did a savvy job in adapting Austen’s story for a digital audience, even tapping into the internet’s love of cats by turning the “minor sister” Kitty into the Bennett family’s adorable pet of the same name.
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While the vlog has become one of new media’s most prominent genres, there are legitimate questions about its limitations. Is it an outlet for emotional teens to vent? An amplified megaphone for angry commentators to rant? At its best, it’s perhaps a means to cultivate a persona that appeals to wide audiences as a launching pad to YouTube stardom. Even sophisticated vloggers like Casey Neistat do more with the technical side of storytelling than the narrative side. With Hank Green’s early forays into vlogging as a template, "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" combined the vlog with a dramatic web series structure to update the epistolary novel for an online audience. Interestingly, rather than choosing more directly translated open property material like "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" or "Dracula," they made the protagonist of "Pride and Prejudice" into a modern day vlogger, giving her a voice of her own. More than that, Su and Green also took a cue from Tom Stoppard’s "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" to give the supporting characters a perspective through “spin-off” vlogs that added complexity to the world of the story. There were even actual side novels for the minor characters! Depending on how much the audience wanted to delve into that fictional universe, fans could keep it relatively simple or go crazy. They could watch the main storyline unfold through Lizzie Bennett’s videos, or obsess over every update on Kitty Bennett’s Twitter page (reminder: Kitty was actually a kitty). And of course there was the nuclear option for those truly obsessive fans: reading Austen’s actual novel to see how the web series updated and altered the plot and characters.
The paradox of digital and social media is that although it’s never been easier to read more, the sum total of reading appears to be on the decline, especially for old-fangled books. For a pretty relevant example, think about how anyone with access to the iBooks store can download a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" for free. How many of us have actually done that? Okay, now how many actually read more than the first three pages before we got distracted by something else? The number of full novel readers is likely higher among Lizzie Bennett viewers, which encouraged its audience to compare, contrast and comment on the differences. The creators pulled off a clever adaptation that preserved the novel’s core characters and themes, but acknowledged the changing social customs and values, especially regarding the place of girls and women in the world (because, you know, that was kind of Jane Austen’s whole thing). In a nice meta-twist, the creators also adapted Darcy’s English country estate Pemberley into a digital media empire, which has now become the IRL media platform for "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" and other new media adaptations of classic literature.
In the world of web series, "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" had an astronomical run of 100 main episodes, not counting the spin-offs like Lydia’s own vlog diaries or the Collins & Collins instructional videos. The show not only won multiple Streamy Awards, but also became the first digital series to win an Emmy (yes, in a unique category, but still…respect). On top of all this, the show was also an independent production targeted towards younger viewers, an entertainment niche that tends to be dominated by big corporations like the one with a rodent logo as its trademark. The creators and producers have continued to pursue this formula through other adaptations under the Pemberley brand. A Kickstarter campaign for "Welcome to Sanditon," based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, raised $400,000, which was only about $340,000 above its goal. The carrot for “investors” for that campaign included DVD copies of "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries," i.e. hard copies of that show they can watch for free online whenever the hell they want. So clearly there is an audience for this type of innovative updating of great books. That said, it’s safe to say the other projects haven’t had the same cache or cultural moment as "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries." If even the Marvel Cinematic Universe is subject to diminishing returns, both in quality and profit, Pemberley could easily be susceptible to the same forces. Yes, "Frankenstein M.D." is a fun spin on the classic horror tale, and a nice way to try to draw a younger male audience, but there were also two feature film updates of the same story in the last couple years and a prominent storyline for the scientist and his monster on the TV series "Penny Dreadful." When Amy Heckerling made "Clueless" in 1995, it was a subversive satire of youth culture that now stands as a contemporary classic. Hollywood has tried to replicate the literature-as-teen-comedy formula ever since, but never with such good results. Yes, Pemberley’s intentions are a lot less brazen than the studios who milked this trend dry over the years. But perhaps Pemberley should view this as a cautionary sign as they continue to undertake their noble mission to create digital media content based on canonical works.
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