E: If you and I were at a party together, chances are good the talk would turn to books and movies and TV (let’s face it, if we’re at the same party, that’s going to happen) as well as adaptations of books into movies and TV. That’s my idea of a nerdy good time, and happily it’s not an uncommon occurrence. And so if you and I were standing together in a friend’s kitchen at this hypothetical party, I would probably say to you what I’ve said many times on this blog – that when I really love a book it takes multiple viewings of the film adaptation before I can even appreciate the work for what it is, because my mind is so busy reconstructing and reordering the original.
You probably know the kind of adjustment process I mean. For instance, Faramir wasn’t supposed to be tempted by the ring, and how many years later does that sin against his nature rankle? If I decide to read all the Song of Ice and Fire novels before the current season of Game of Thrones finishes airing, will the show be as much shocking fun if I know what’s coming? Also, why do the muttations look like hopped-up pit bulls instead of tribute-flavored wolves, do you think – is that for distance from Twilight’s werewolves, and does it really matter? Holy cow, do you realize that the 2005 version totally relocated the moment when the leads fall in love from Pemberley to the ballroom at Netherfield? That’s blasphemy! Heck, I still can’t figure out whether The Hobbit was a good movie or not and it’s been how many months?
But strangely enough, that trouble with adaptation turned out to be the greatest gift of the lately completed Pride and Prejudice modernization, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which I loved unreservedly and mourn in the same fashion. What made them so wonderful, in some ways, was the previously unknown-to-me miracle of book-to-web-series translation. Twice a week (sometimes more, O blessed months of January and February!) I received an perfect bite-sized portion of one of my favorite novels updated as a modern vlog, easily accessed online so I could watch again and again, so I could break down the beats and the sentences and decide how I felt about them. I wasn’t struggling under the weighty challenge of figuring out the whole adaptation at once. With each unfolding petal, there was anticipation, there was the chance to debate, there was room to appreciate (or disapprove) the choices the creative team made. And because it’s a modernization as well as an adaptation, the possibilities for wonderful surprises seemed even larger. Somehow, it was more thrilling that I knew generally what was coming, and could speculate endlessly on the precise details.
In short, it was heaven. I think it is my new favorite mode of adaptation.
And as if that weren’t enough, there’s the water-cooler aspect of following any show or franchise, and the fandom that comes with it – the communal aspect of public art, the webbing that binds us together. Surely this aspect has been fueled by the series being an online phenomenon, amplified by the transmedia platform. With each newly introduced friend it moved from “hey, you have to watch this, it’s great, trust me” to “OMG, have you watched today’s episode yet? What did you thinkwhatdidyouthinkwhatdidyouthink?” There were friendships formed or deepened, brilliant debates with strangers, gifs to applaud and tribute videos to coo over. There’s a whole community – almost exclusively female – who love the book and love the series, smart women who tested the new work for its strength of purpose and commitment, for the truth of its characters and their fidelity to Austen’s originals and also to the world we know.
I can’t help thinking a lot these days about one of my favorite poems, Richard Wilbur’s “Praise in Summer.” He writes that sometimes summer – and by extension, anything exuberantly wonderful – calls us all to laud it, but that it’s part of the human condition that our praise can rarely be delivered in a straightforward manner. True praise, a true reaction, provokes creation in us. He writes: “and then I wondered why this mad instead / perverts our praise to uncreation, why / such savors in this wrenching things awry.” It’s that “mad instead,” that urge to color the familiar in our own way, which drives us to write blog posts, to make up playlists and mugs and t-shirts and fan art and fan fiction, to make up headcanon, to stick Daniel Gordh’s face on aquatic creatures, even to pick up Lizzie’s verbal quirks and mannerisms. (There is no link for that last; embarrassingly enough, that’s my real life.) We want to change the original in ways that feel true, to reply, to wink back. And it’s the self-same impulse that causes Collins & Collins to hire a fan vlogger to make a video for them, and Mrs. Bennet to acquire her own aquarium replete with yes, seahorses. Because the human response to good art is more art. Bernie Su, Hank Green, Jenni Powell and their collaborators wrenched Jane Austen’s masterwork out of its setting, and in putting it back together made us see the original in new ways, which then made us, as Wilbur has it, “derange / the world to know it.”
And in that spirit, I’d like to share a few thoughts on why, to borrow a phrase from William Darcy, this adaptation is special.
I’ve gushed before about my favorite aspect of Pride and Prejudice, its revolutionary nature: the hero falls for the heroine not because she’s beautiful and good (even though she is) and definitely not because she’s the prettiest girl in the room who struck him like a thunderbolt (because she’s not and she didn’t) but because as he comes to know her, he sees that she’s smart and funny. Forget about 200 years ago; even today, Elizabeth Bennet would be the sassy best friend. 90% of the time at least, Hollywood would insist the story should belong to Jane. And don’t get me wrong, I love Jane (and Laura Spencer’s perfect portrayal of her), but Elizabeth teaches us something different and something much more important: who you are matters more than what you look like and what first impression you make. Mr. Darcy, too, bucks the Hollywood convention because he’s not charming, and he’s not funny, and he’s not suave or smooth. Even more odd, we hear about the good things he does rather than actually see him do them. Again, how you treat people matters – and not just how you treat them if you happened to meet at a party, but when the chips are down, too. Good ideas, principles, have to be put in practice to count. The surface is not the thing itself.
Pride and Prejudice is also a particularly thinky work – the heroine spends a lot more time talking about and musing on the hero than having interactions with him that the readers get to observe. It’s an amazing journey through one woman’s perception of the truth of another human being, and the way that uncovering the truth of another person changes us. And really, watching the LBD was a lot like that experience. I start off with a certain impression based on the book, one that’s hard for me to change, and another based on earlier successful adaptations (cravats, smoldering, plunges into a pond, English fields on a misty morning). But I do change those ideas, because as I see the characters as they behave day by day, I come to find comfort and pleasure in their difference from my original mental concepts. There’s a geeky delight here (Lizzie likes Dr. Who and Star Trek and reads Harry Potter and The Hunger Games just like me!), but the opportunity to see true growth as well. The vlog format is at once intimate and confining, bringing us inside Lizzie’s explicitly unreliable point of view. We understand in the book that Elizabeth is always mocking Darcy, seeking to cause him pain rather than not – but we never really see her being offensive. The video diaries, on the other hand, show us Lizzie’s vitriol in a way that doesn’t allow us to back down from the pain she causes. The book tells us that Lizzie’s arch and sweet manner is too charming to make her barbs hurt, and that could be true here too – but as we see the consequences of her words (on Darcy, but especially on Lydia) we come to a more complete understanding of her hero’s journey. We love Lizzie, but we appreciate her even more thoroughly as a flawed human being, seen differently and anew, fresh and strange.
Because the webseries is structured as a video diary, it has a confessional aspect that tailors nicely to the fact, previously stated, that most of Elizabeth’s changes take place while she’s alone, inside her head. Lizzie talks directly to us; the connection feels more than usually personal. Ashley Clements is so incandescent and so believable, that I was stunned to learn (early in my viewing experience) that she was an actress with a support team and writers instead of simply being a girl with a really good AV system doing a fan project in her own bedroom.
And, too, the text comes to play in so many subtle ways, twisting back between the old and the new. Episode 95 brought us Caroline Lee instead of Lady Catherine, and showcases Lizzie’s emotional progress (at the expense of a more obvious romantic reveal) when she doesn’t send the interloper away in high dudgeon, but instead takes pity, expresses an understanding of her motives, and then invites her to stay for dinner. Because Darcy watches the videos, he doesn’t need hearsay to pick up that Lizzie has feelings for him, and so that conversation turns out to be about her, rather than him.
And then the pivotal romantic conclusion of episode 98, entitled “Gratitude,” was a play on Lizzie’s explicit and worrisome gratitude – her sense of obligation – for Darcy’s actions to save Lydia, but also a reference to the original text, where Elizabeth receives Mr. Darcy’s second proposal with “gratitude and pleasure.” She’s grateful for his love, for its depth and strength – as much as Lizzie wants him to understand her feelings aren’t based on the depth and strength of his wallet. Just as the story deals with various kinds of pride (Darcy in his lineage, Elizabeth in her judgement) and prejudice (both their first impressions), we have different sorts of gratitude – “gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forget the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him, and all the unjust accusations accompanying her rejection.” The references to the original text expand our understanding of the present; it’s almost an Easter Egg for those familiar with the text.
And because I’d lived with the novel Pride and Prejudice for so much of my life, because this web version was at once old and new, the original and this modernization re-arranged to help me know it, I miss it more. And right now I wallow in the sadness of its passing.
So as much as there’s absolutely no argument over where the story should end, it’s surprisingly hard to accept that the show will not, in fact, go on. Lizzie’s got funding! She’s going to be a new media professional! It’s illogical for the diaries to go away now! “But E,” you might be thinking, “the episodes still exist online. Even better, they’re going to be released on DVD – hopefully with the transmedia elements somehow accessible. And people adapt Jane Austen every day, two hundred years later! Many modern authors make an actual living actually publishing fan fiction. The original work is still alive.” Sure – one can’t have reread Jane Austen as many times as I have and not know that; I am literally on my fourth complete works because I read them so often that the previous three ended up in flakes. There’s no need to grieve for the LBD, because it’s still alive too. Of course I know that’s true. For at least ten years my parents and sister and I rewatched the 1995 P&P miniseries over every single holiday, because when an adaptation – a “wrenching awry,” as Wilbur would have it – works, it really works. It brings you joy each time.
But because it was strung out over almost a year and set in such an intimate form, the passing of the LBD feels like a different beast – because I could follow Jane on Pinterest, because I haunted the characters’ twitter feeds (after previously disdaining the medium), because I discovered tumblr and on any given day might find a new way of immersing myself in the story. The entire experience was engineered to feel as if we too were living it in real time, and so especially for that, I miss it. Like tens of thousands of others, I soaked it in, and as hyper-mediation theory tells us, it felt more real where I knew explicitly that it wasn’t.
In the end, maybe it’s as simple as death; we have photographs, yes, we have our memories, but we miss the new conversations. I know that’s melodramatic, but it’s the same principle, isn’t it? We miss the potential of the future, the capacity for surprise, the otherness of that Other which we cannot recreate outside their presence. It’s inevitable to feel a sort of grief at the passing of any show viewers felt invested in, adapted or original. There is nothing to weep for here, not really, because the LBD achieved what we all want out of a show; they told their story, planned perfectly to its proper conclusion. (There’s little so frustrating, after all, as an intriguing show canceled before reaching its conclusion – except perhaps a show that meanders on so long that the writers run out of stories, or the good writers have all left to start their own shows, simply because no one wants to cancel a profitable, well-rated piece of commerce.) And yes, Lizzie is still out there, perfectly preserved in all her wonderfully elastic facial contortions. But still, we miss the new. We miss her point of view. Lizzie is more than just her love story and the major life lessons learned through her relationships with Darcy and Charlotte and Lydia, so it’s hard not to feel like we could have watched her forever. And oh, but we miss Lydia and Jane and Charlotte and Bing and Darcy and Ricky and Mary, too. We do. We miss them.
That’s all, really. That’s the beginning and the end. I miss it.