How You Tell a Story

It is a truth universally acknowledged that adaptation is a key to survival. We adapt, or we die. I would argue that all things must adapt, or be adapted, to avoid being lost to the ages. Even stories.

We currently live in a media culture that is overwhelmed by adaptations and retellings of books, plays, comics and older movies. A lot of people are bemoaning this. Some people complain about “messing up the original,” and some people complain about the lack of new and original material being developed for the public. The latter is a valid point—to an extent—but the former argument doesn’t really hold up.

It’s not as if people are pulling a fast one and going back to an older movie to fiddle with the content (I’m looking at you, George Lucas. Han shot first, man, come on). The original material remains intact, untainted by any adaptation or retelling. They are separate and distinct things, something fans of the original often forget in their enraged attempts at shaming new fans who haven’t yet explored the source material.

The best adaptations do what they say; they adapt the story to fit the new work in a different way. An adaptation should resemble the original material, yes, but there is more than one way to tell a single story. That’s sort of the beauty of stories, you know? Adaptations often make a change in the time period, the location or the medium—sometimes all three—while still retaining the soul of the story and the characters who live within it.

For example, look at The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an Emmy Award-winning web series on YouTube developed by Bernie Su and Hank Green that adapts Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It premiered last year, but I honestly can’t get over it. It’s got everything the novel has—humor, strong women, silly men, romance, tragedy—and all of that is accessible within today’s society. And it’s groundbreaking in its format and use of media. I’m telling you, you need to check this out.

So what does Pride and Prejudice look like in 2012?

Su and Green took a group of beloved characters and made them make sense in our world. They were rather ambitious about it by moving the Bennet family, with their friends, relations and acquaintances, to 2012 California. Elizabeth becomes Lizzie, living at home with her parents and sisters while working toward a master’s in communications.

All of the novel’s major characters (with the exception of Bennet sisters Kitty and Mary, who serve important points in the novel but who would not find much of a place in modern life) make appearances of some kind. All of the adult characters like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine DeBourgh and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are never seen, only discussed, but their actions are felt.

As a massive fan of the novel, I was interested to see how the writers would modernize some of the book’s biggest events, including the ones that wouldn’t really work in today’s society. For example, how would they work in Mrs. Bennet’s scheme to get Jane to stay at Netherfield Park in the hopes that Mr. Bingley would fall in love with her? How would they get Lizzie to Pemberley, and what would Pemberley even be? How would they explain Mr. Collins’ proposals to both Lizzie and Charlotte?

It all gets accomplished in satisfying and realistic terms, and none of it compromises the story itself. The Bennet home is being renovated, and the girls are offered a room at Netherfield Park. Pemberley becomes Pemberley Digital, a production company in San Francisco, where Lizzie interns as part of her thesis project. Collins’ proposal to Lizzie and subsequently to Charlotte becomes not one of marriage but of employment. While there are some discrepancies, they serve only to make the story work in modern society where the original material never would.

One of the quirks of 19th century society is that people were referred to by their last names, and that’s mostly fallen out of favor today. For a character like Charles Bingley, that becomes difficult to adapt. In the novel he is only ever known as Bingley or Mr. Bingley, but to have everyone he meets in a modern world call him that would be odd. Instead, Su and Green opted to name him Bing Lee, thus adding something different to the invariably all-white cast that you’d expect from an 18th-century novel.

In addition to purposefully bringing two Asian-American characters into the story, the creators seem to have (thankfully) cast for talent more than type, so we get Charlotte Lu instead of Charlotte Lucas. Incidentally, this also adds more authenticity to a show set in the melting pot that is California.

The vlog as a medium is an extremely interesting development in modern society—a more in-depth diary, if you will. A public in-depth diary. There’s a connection between the vlogger and the audience that isn’t found in a written journal, even on a blog site. The audience can see the vlogger, and it feels as if the vlogger is in the room, telling you their story.

Lizzie Bennet starts her vlog series to document her life, as most vloggers do, with the help of Charlotte as editor. Because this is meant to be a real girl making real vlogs, it doesn’t make sense for the camera to capture all the important scenes, so most events that happen off-camera are recounted through costume theater. Lizzie creates a script and provides a costume for whoever happens to be with her.

Su and Green, who turned the Pemberley Digital of their show into a real production company, brought Austen’s characters into the 21st century without damaging either the characters themselves or the themes of Austen’s novel. Issues of social class, morality, manners, love, and, of course, pride and prejudice are still alive and well in today’s society.

Since The Lizzie Bennet Diaries ended in the spring, Pemberley Digital has produced two other series based on Jane Austen novels: Welcome to Sanditon and Emma Approved. Emma Approved, based on the novel Emma, is a series similar to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but Welcome to Sanditon, which draws from Austen’s unfinished Sanditon, does something different. While there are actors and a script, Welcome to Sanditon also offered fans the chance to create their own character who would live in Sanditon and interact with the plot and other fans—always as the character they created, never as themselves.

They’re doing some really interesting things over at Pemberley Digital, and I can’t wait to see what else they’ve got up their sleeves.

So romance and “chick lit” (that’s a whole other discussion) isn’t really your thing? That’s okay. I guess what I’m asking here is for people to stop hating on an adaptation of something simply because it is an adaptation. Adaptations keep stories alive, in a sense, because they bring in new audience members. Think about how many people have now read Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, A Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, anything from Marvel and DC—the list goes on and on—all because of an adaptation. We would do well to remember, too, that stories, no matter the form they take, only exist so long as someone is there to consume them. So don’t hate the newcomers to a story you already love. Welcome them, because they’re going to help your story stay alive.