A few days ago, I watched the latest episode on Pemberley Digital’s YouTube channel. It was a Draw My Life video, which, based on meme history, is about two years late to the game. But no matter, it still amassed tens of thousands of views in just one day. Why? Because the person drawing her life was Amy March, youngest of four daughters.
First, a history lesson. Pemberley Digital became a company because of one of Hank Green’s crazier ideas: making a YouTube adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Because he’s Hank Green, and even his craziest ideas become viable cultural phenomena (VidCon is another of his brainchildren), The Lizzie Bennet Diaries changed the landscape of YouTube. One hundred and fifty-nine episodes and just under a year later, Lizzie Bennet, a poor graduate student who can’t stand the young CEO of Pemberley Digital, William Darcy, had 250,000 subscribers, an Emmy, and a string of imitations.
Less than three years after our modern Lizzie showed us the t-shirt her mom got her daughters for Christmas (It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune… Must be in want of a wife), a comment left by Jaaz Flores on Amy March’s Draw My Life video said (edited for typos):
Awesome series!!! If you liked The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved, Welcome to Sanditon and Frankenstein MD, I recommend you [watch]which is a modern adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, which is a modern adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, which is a modern adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, which is a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and which is a modern adaptation of Jane Eyre (duh’)…. I hope you like some, I only share the ones I currently follow, and the ones I’ve followed till the end….
Okay, so what gives? Why does this work? People are flocking to the Internet to see the stories they Spark Notes’d their way through tests on in high school get adapted into the modern world. In addition to the ones above, there have been adaptations of The Great Gatsby, Peter Pan, even a strange meta-adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Pemberley Digital tackled Frankenstein between Austen and Alcott.
Are these stories somehow more relatable when they’re put in a world we’re familiar with? I doubt that’s the only reason. Otherwise, YouTube should be exploding with things like Mary Kate Wiles’s other projects like Kissing in the Rain and Squaresville. But they’re not the phenomena. Why are adaptations taking off? Here are five reasons why:
1. We’re telling timeless stories
Simply put, these stories wouldn’t have lasted hundreds of years if they weren’t good stories. Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing… I can think of several modern adaptations of each, from Bridget Jones’s Diary to 10 Things I Hate about You. It just makes sense that these timeless classics would make their way onto YouTube.
2. Adapting timeless stories to the modern world makes them relateable
Along the same lines as number one. We love wondering what sort of shenanigans these character tropes would get into, when there are things like Facebook stalking and cell phones and instant messaging. When taking a long vacay with your boyfriend isn’t scandalous and the need for their imminent marriage just… isn’t… what kind of scandal would Lydia and Wickham be involved in today? (LBD’s interpretation is fantastic.)
These stories that we struggled through in their original forms suddenly make sense, and teenagers and ex-teenagers everywhere get what all the fuss was about.
3. Telling the stories 3 to 10 minutes at a time works with our ADHD, multitasking lifestyles
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a sucker for a good book. However, if I find myself with a few spare minutes, it’s a lot easier to check my subscriptions on YouTube for a short video than to sit down with A Tale of Two Cities (yes, I’m still slowly slogging my way through it. It’s good, but slow.). The shows manage complete arcs in tiny amounts of time, letting us get our fill of the characters and the progressing storyline while we wait for our dinner to cook. I might show an excellent video to my husband, who doesn’t follow the series. I might re-watch the most emotional, intense moments from completed series (hello, episode 98 of LBD. Hello, episode 70 of Emma Approved). I don’t go to my books and re-read my favorite passages. (Although I might look up quotes on Goodreads.)
4. The total runtime of the shows appeals to our extra-content-oriented fangirling
Each episode in and of itself is short and easily manageable. But want to binge-watch Lizzie Bennet Diaries? It will take longer than the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, whether you include the “bonus episodes” or not. These adaptations, unlike movie adaptations in particular, are able to dig deep into the original story, including all subplots and even fleshing out a few.
Lizzie Bennet Diaries was good. The way they handled Lydia was incredible. She got a story that made sense, learned so much more from her mistakes, and Mary Kate’s acting was stellar. Nothing Much to Do includes hints at other potential (diverse!) relationships, and promotes maids to friends, giving them more life of their own. Meg in particular seems to have more to her character than in the original play.
Not to mention that, there’s the phenomenon of transmedia. Almost every series has their characters with social media accounts of their own. Twitters, Tumblrs, Instagrams, blogs… Emma Woodhouse’s blog was completely in-universe, talking about things a life coach would probably talk about on a blog, with hints of what’s going on in their life. Jane Bennet ran a fashion tumblr. You could follow Darcy’s business Twitter. There is so much depth to the series you can truly get lost in-universe if you want to.
5. Anything the Green brothers do will earn a lot of imitations
Just trust me. It will. In Nothing Much to Do, Hero and Beatrice even call themselves the vlog cousins.
But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
And don’t these two look like people who deserve to be imitated?