Judging by the reactions to the rising stars of Zoe Suggs and Alfie Deyes, vlogs are the end of civilization as we know it and – like Zoella’s ghost-written novel – they certainly have no place in Literature. But the fresh-faced teens and twenties don’t just vlog about their own lives; they dress up as fictional characters and tell modern twists on familiar stories in their webcams as YouTube adaptations of classic novels go viral. The teams behind them can be professional actors or just fans of the books, and the quality of the scripts and production can vary, but at best they could give the BBC a run for its money.
The most successful of these is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the award-winning 2012 series that turns Austen’s heroine into a graduate student and Darcy into a hipster entrepreneur. The days of lingering close-ups of Colin Firth emerging dripping from a lake are behind us – now such images are more likely to be uploaded to Instagram by one of the characters. And this 21st century shakeup saved Lydia from the run for the most modern of scandals, a leaked sex tape.
Purists may tighten their hoods, but the web series’ smash hit has paved the way for imitators to take on everyone from JM Barrie to George RR Martin, and updating classic literature for the YouTube generation has become an extremely profitable cottage industry.
The technology may be new, but the concept is not. Writers have always relied on communication techniques as a narrative device – where Austen used letters and Wilkie Collins had journal entries, we now have Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Just as letters can be intercepted and diaries can be read, videos can be leaked and tweets broadcast.
Over its one-year run, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, in particular, was good at weaving technology into storylines. Lizzie faces the fallout of being a social media star, Charlotte Lu – formerly known as Charlotte Lucas – accepts the offer to join Mr. Collins’ digital media company which Lizzie rejects, and it’s the Lydia’s status as Tumblr’s favorite party girl makes her so vulnerable to George Wickham’s attack.
But does spreading the story on social media tell us anything about the original classics?
While the modernized adaptations have the freedom to explore the themes of the original novel in ways the original authors never could have envisioned, they remain surprisingly faithful to their source texts. It’s the closest thing we can get to Austen’s original readers’ experience – her talent for capturing the flaws and weaknesses of everyday people is laid bare without the “period” distractions of gowns. empire line, tight breeches and stately homes to distract us. When Daniel Vincent Gordh’s “William Darcy” first appeared on our computer screens, it sounded hostile and stuffy. There was none of Colin Firth’s shyness or Matthew McFadyen’s shyness hidden behind a facade of indifference – like his namesake, he was goofy and well, proud.
With new adaptations popping up online every week — Much Ado About Nothing and Little Women are recent additions to the YouTube canon — the writers’ only problem is running out of classics to update.
five of the best
Lizzie Bennet’s Diaries [Pride & Prejudice]
One of the earliest and certainly most successful literary vlogs, this Emmy-winning cult hit brought the Jane Austen classic to a whole new audience. Not just a retelling of one of the world’s most famous love stories, it was an exploration of millennials’ addiction to snark and internet fame.
Commenters who hadn’t read the novel speculated that Lizzie would end up with Wickham, while there’s a whole genre of fan fiction centering around the web series dedicated to Lydia and Georgiana Darcy bonding over their caddish ex. to become best friends or more.
carmilla [Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets cult sci-fi podcast Welcome to Night Vale – it’s the lesbian supernatural comedy-drama the world has been waiting for. Sheridan LeFanu’s original short story is full of hints of Sapphic passion, but here the subtext comes to the fore.
Carmilla is still an age-old vampire, but now the love that dare not speak her name has absolutely no problem coming forward. The love triangle is between two women, one character is genderqueer, and it’s sponsored by Kotex, which cleverly deflects all the tacky lesbian vampire jokes. Natasha Negovanlis is a delightfully vamping creature of the night and Elise Bauman a spunky damsel who refuses to be afflicted, but the show — and its fan base — belongs to Kaitlyn Alexander’s nerdy, crazy LaFontaine.
Green Gables Fables – [Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery]
Ignore the title twee, it’s a feisty revamp of LM Montgomery’s classic heroine. Anne Shirley is a foster child who frequents poetry slam with braces and a blog who refuses to be Gilbert Blythe’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s as clumsy as the 1908 original and far less boring.
Jules and Monty
Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most told love story ever written, and this student-made adaptation isn’t the first to update the action in a contemporary setting. KAP and MTG are feuding college societies, loyalty among peers is paramount, and our lovers are so melodramatic you want to smack them. In other words, it’s perfect.
School of Thrones [A Song of Ice and Fire]
School of Thrones takes George RR Martin’s tale of sex and ambition and relocates it to the most terrifying setting imaginable – Westeros is a modern high school and the prom is approaching. More a parody of the HBO series than the books themselves, what it loses in gore and incest it gains in gleeful jokes and bad wigs.