12 Jan 2015

A Novel Idea: Webseries Based on Classic Literature

With one of my favourite novels, Little Women, currently being adapted for computer screens everywhere, I thought that today I'd talk about my favourite YouTube trend: classic literature being turned into webseries.

It all started with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which was an unmitigated success: the show won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Original Interactive Content. Ashley Clements starred as Lizzie Bennet, an American postgrad student majoring in communications and making video diaries as a part of her thesis. The characters also appeared on social media sites such as Twitter and Tumblr, allowing the characters to interact with the fandom, but also using the accounts to supplement the story being told in the videos. Lizzie's costume theatre allowed us to be introduced to characters while still getting her biased take on them - we only got to see Darcy through her eyes for 60+ episodes, and thus we got to think of him as stuffy and stand-offish.

What made LBD such a runaway success? It could've been that Ashley as Lizzie was incredibly charismatic. It could've been the strength of the actors - everyone from Laura Spencer and Mary Kate Wiles, who played Jane and Lydia respectively, to Allison Paige, who appeared as Gigi Darcy gave such great performances. But what I think contributed to its success is this: LBD was a show about women who were in their early to mid twenties. The majority of the characters on the show fit this description, the majority of the interactions between characters on the show and in the show's social media were carried out by characters who fit this description. The target audience of LBD would most probably fit this description: the audience is predominately female, and most of the people I know who watch this show could relate to Lizzie, Charlotte and Jane and their concerns over university debt and their careers (or lack thereof). In a world where male-focused stories dominate our media landscape, LBD was a breath of fresh air. The women onscreen were defined by their relationship with each other primarily, and their relationship with the male characters (Darcy, Bing, Ricky Collins) second. 

If I had any complaint of LBD, it's that there are too many videos. For example, while Maria Lu is supposed to be representative of the show's fandom, her videos at Collins & Collins add very little to the show's narrative - in fact, all of the C&C videos are unneeded and I can't help but wonder why they were included. There are some episodes in Lizzie's vlogs that are likewise unnecessary, but the main cast - heck, even the supporting cast - are so good at what they do that it's just fun to watch them onscreen.

Less successful was Emma Approved, which starred Joanna Sotomura as Emma Woodhouse, Brent Bailey as Alex Knightley and Dayeanne Hutton as Harriet Smith. Not only did the show have the shadow of Jane Austen's Emma looming over them, but they also had to avoid comparisons with what is without a doubt the greatest Emma adaptation, modern or otherwise: Clueless.

In this adaptation, Emma Woodhouse is a business entrepreneur,  life coach and professional matchmaker with a perfect score. Knightley - first name changed to Alex, presumably so audiences would confuse him with George Wickham - is an accountant extraordinaire and Emma's business partner, with Harriet being hired as their new receptionist, taking the role over from Annie Taylor.  Emma is a very different story to Pride and Prejudice, and since Emma's relationship with Knightley is instrumental in Emma's development as a character, it meant that it was the show was very much about Emma being defined in terms of her relationship with Knightley. Emma's relationships with Annie and Izzy barely registered on the radar, although Emma did have a very sweet relationship with Harriet.

The creators added more social media - Emma also had a fashion blog, which went through every outfit she and Harriet wore throughout the show's run, with appearances from Caroline Lee of LBD, Jane Fairfax, and Izzy Woodhouse. However, for me it came down to an issue of quality vs quantity. A lot of the time it seemed as if the show's social media only existed so Pemberley Digital could advertise their sponsors - it has been noted that 

"Whereas Lizzie Bennet managed to make money thanks to YouTube advertising, merchandising and a degree of product integration, it didn’t produce money from every channel the series played out on. This time around, despite having only 80% of the audience of the first series, Emma Approved is pulling in five times the cash. Every platform is being monetised." 

The show's social media didn't really add anything to the story being told in the videos, which I think had a lot to do with the framing of the show's narrative - they didn't exist as video blogs in-world, Emma had just installed cameras in everyone's office to catalogue her rise in lifestyle excellence. It therefore didn't really make sense for Emma to have Q&A videos (although there were some made) because the audience couldn't have known about the things they were asking about without the videos existing in-world, and Emma was also promoting the videos on her personal Twitter account, despite the videos not existing in-world... it was confusing. Pemberley Digital did a lot to promote themselves as a brand throughout Emma Approved's run, but I think this meant that the quality of story-telling was sacrificed as a result. 

On the other hand, Emma Approved is very watchable. Joanna is very charming as Emma, Brent is incredibly likeable as Knightley, Dayeanne brings something more to the role of Harriet, and the supporting cast is strong. The writing is a bit hit-and-miss, but the cast makes the most of what they've been given. Interestingly, the show came across as more polished and glossy - a second camera, higher production values - than LBD, but this seemed to be detrimental to the show's success - as Charlotte Lu noted in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, "people like the DIY look."

 Most recently launched was The March Family Letters a show produced by Canadian production team Cherrydale Productions and distributed by Pemberley Digital, creators of LBD and EA. Alex Kerr, Cassidy Civiero, Jessica Allen & Nicole Girt star as Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth March. In The March Family Letters, Marmee has been deployed and under Jo's carefully worded, forceful suggestion, the sisters begin making the video diaries as a way to keep Marmee updated with their lives.

The show only began airing in December of last year, although a preview episode was launched in March of last year (with Jessica Gallant in the role of Jo) and Amy has been making Q&A videos and interacting with the fandom prior to the airing of the first episode. The sisters also have a strong social media presence (even timid Beth!), meaning that stories have been playing out off-screen for quite some time. Although it's still early days - only five episodes have aired so far - it appears that, like the female characters in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the March sisters are primarily defined by their relationship with one another.  Like their book counterparts, the March sisters are very much theatrical and over-the-top - with the obvious exception of Beth - and while this has been read by some as the actresses overacting, I think that it's very much how the Marches would behave were they 21st century characters.

It's not just professional production companies that are making the most of this trend - Jane Eyre, Mansfield Park, Anne of Green Gables, North and South, even Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing have all been given the DIY YouTube treatment. Each success story finds a way to add to and make the trend their own. Although the webseries treatment definitely works better with some classics than others, it's definitely interesting to watch it develop as a story-telling platform.

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