Friday, 10 May 2013

A Closer look at 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries' by Mike Dolan

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 'Pride and Prejudice' is one of the most classic novels ever written. For centuries it has enthralled readers with its biting wit and charming characters, and the snapshot it provides of nineteenth-century culture is a large part of what makes it such an intriguing story to consume. As such, it is no wonder that countless people have retold this story through different lenses - from the 1995 BBC miniseries to Bridget Jones, Lizzy and Darcy's story has been permuted and filtered into different forms, in many cases so far-gone from the original text that one must search deeply to find the connections between them. But perhaps the most daring adaption produced thus far has been the web series 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries', which ran over the course of a year and told the story of 'Pride and Prejudice' through the medium of the video blog of a twenty-first century graduate student. It showed her coping with the trials and tribulations of dealing with her two sisters, Jane and Lydia, her mother's frantic attempts to marry them off before they are evicted from their house, and (most importantly), how she fell in love with William Darcy, the wealthy CEO of a technology company, Pemberley Digital.

Anybody who has read the novel will have cocked their head at this synopsis which is so very similar yet so undeniably different to the original - and understandably so. But what makes the web series so fascinating is the broad way in which it adapted the novel - it sacrificed the petty details and updated others to make for a story which held the same weight which the original did at the time it was written. This thread of updating rather than emulating is sewn throughout the series with a fine hand - Charles Bingley, the wealthy bachelor of the novel, becomes Bing Lee, a medical student with a promising future. The number of Bennet sisters is reduced from a hectic five to a more manageable, modern, three (although Mary and Kitty both have occasional appearances as a cousin and a kitten, respectively). The impetus for Mrs. Bennet to marry off her daughters is changed from an unwritten social expectation to a pressing financial requirement, echoing a struggle many people face in the modern day, making the situation much more understandable. 

But the alterations to the story stretch far further than in names and numbers. The series' depiction of women and power is one which is far more fitting for a modern world than the outdated customs of the novel. In a time where a woman couldn't own property, vote, or hold any meaningful career, Lizzy Bennet stood out as a feminist heroine, challenging the cultural perceptions and ideas which clouded the views of the people of the time. She was not content to be told whom she had to marry, she turned down two marriage proposals from wealthy men, and she was in all parts a "headstrong, obstinate girl" who was never afraid to speak her mind. But when this 1800s heroine is lifted straight out of the pages of the book and flung carelessly into the modern day, it is all too easy for her to lose that unique sarcastic edge which makes her so likable. 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries' chose to present her struggles and decisions in a modern-day context while letting her retain the sassy, self-assured personality which defines her as a character. This freedom to let her be herself is something which is offered to all of the characters - Lydia is just as reckless and carefree as she was before, Jane is just as lovely and wholesome, Mrs. Bennet is still a parodic pastiche (although we only see her through Lizzie's imitations). After all, what makes the novel so memorable is the distinct characters who inhabit its world. They are all unique people in their own right, and 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries' managed to preserve this while still making the characters people you can imagine existing in the real world.

Of course, one can't discuss the characters of the novel without also discussing their individual stories. Each has their own side-plot which keeps you interested in them and ensures that they always remain at the forefront of your mind. This, again, is something which the series excelled in preserving. Instead of being the all-consuming social prison sentence marriage once was, it is now a lot freer as a concept, and not nearly as wrapped up in the concepts of wealth, class, and social standing. As such, the series had to find a new way to represent what a marriage proposal meant, and why turning one down was so unusual. In the novel, Mr. Collins's proposal would ensure Lizzy a reasonably well-off life, a home to live in, and lots of opportunities to have children. But in the series, Mr. Collins instead offers her a job with his company, funded by his venture capitalist Catherine de Bourgh, which, considering the Bennet family's financial standings, would be insane to turn down. Lizzie refusing the offer is something that, while appearing perhaps an obvious choice to the reader, is now seen as a lot more of a moral dilemma to the viewer. And in our society, where eloping with someone no longer means cutting yourself off from the rest of the world, George Wickham marrying Lydia doesn't mean nearly the same thing as it did in the novel. Again, the series decided to emphasise how poor Lydia's decision was by mutating it into something which could have ruined her future had it not been stopped, through his threat to release a sex tape of her. 

Over all, 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries' was a fantastic idea wonderfully executed. Far too often, 'Pride and Prejudice' is brushed aside as boring, uneventful, and inaccessible. But the series managed to prove that the novel's characters and themes are just as important now as they were then - though some details were changed to make them more relatable to a modern audience, some plot lines altered to make them more impactful, the story and its core message remained fundamentally the same. It is the same story it always was. It is still a story about love and hate, marriage and independence, and pride and prejudice.