Mar. 31st, 2013

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I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time last year.

Last Tuesday, I went to the inaugural Melbourne Literary Salon, where I met Adele Walsh from the Centre for Youth Literature. She told me about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries - Pride and Prejudice retold as a series of YouTube videos. Several other people agreed that they were excellent. I said I'd give it a try when I got home.

I churned through 20 episodes that night before I had to go bed.

The format is simple. Elizabeth Bennet has been reimagined as a sarcastic video blogger who starts making video diaries as part of her graduate degree. Jane works in fashion. Lydia is a hyperactive Facebook brat. Bingley is now Bing Lee, a rich and handsome med student. Darcy owns Pemberly Digital, a web video company. The team behind it includes Hank Green, of Vlogbrothers fame.

It's funny and clever and more-ish as a packet of Tim-Tams. Each video is only three to five minutes long, and they usually end with twist. It's very easy to start watching and click on the next one, and the next one, and then just one more.

The episode where I realised I was hooked was episode 5. Nothing dramatic happens. Lizzie and Jane have a conversation where they play-act as each other, then the play-acting falls apart and their true feelings come through even as they try to maintain their roles. It's the sort of scene we've seen before. Except we've only known these characters for roughly fifteen minutes, and yet there is no confusion as what is going on. The writing and the acting and the grasp of characters are so sharp, you don't even notice how clever that scene is.

There are other clevernesses in the updating of the story to the modern age, too. Lizzie's mother may share the Regency obsession with getting her daughters married off, but the Bennet sisters are as concerned with their friendships and education and careers as they are with their romances. Wistful jokes about Empire-line dresses aside, the Bennet girls are happy to live in a feminist world. It's a diverse world, too: the Bingleys and Lizzie's friend Charlotte have been recast as Asian-Americans, and Fitzwilliams is now a gay black guy named Fitz Williams.

The creators do occasionally have to stretch believability to maintain the video diary format: people constantly interrupt Lizzie's recordings at exactly the time she was talking about them, everyone seems bizarrely happy to have their intimate conversations uploaded to YouTube, and despite being unemployed and her family on the edge of financial ruin, Lizzie still manages a different outfit for every video.

These are minor flaws. They're forgivable, because everything else is so good.

The best part of the series, though, isn't even in the main series.

There are several offshoot video series that branch away from the main storyline to follow the adventures of minor characters. One of these series follows Lydia, the bratty younger sister.

And those side videos transform the Lizzie Bennet Diaries from fun and clever fluff into something really special.

In Austen, Lydia is a giggling and foolish idiot whose life is ruined because she cannot follow the rules of propriety. In Lizzie's diaries, she's the annoying younger sister, a ditzy party girl. But then her sisters leave town, Lydia starts making her own videos, and a whole different side emerges. We see how vulnerable she is, how alone and unloved and unlovable she feels.

And then she meets George Wickham.

He charms her, woos her, offers her the love that she so desperately craves. And then he betrays her in a way that's sickeningly familiar in this age of creepshots and revenge porn.

It's raw and uncomfortable to watch. But it's also utterly compelling. Lydia's character arc is a triumph of storytelling. The creators have taken a minor comic character in Austen, and through compassion and empathy have created some fantastic drama.

Lydia's diaries cut off after the Wickham incident, and we return to the main storyline, and something closer to Austen's work. There's the family turmoil, the unexpected rescue by Darcy, the kiss, the happy ending. The series wraps up on the 100th video. Refreshingly, Darcy doesn't feature in that one at all. It's Lizzie, talking about her hopes for the future, and her friends, and her reasons for stopping the diaries so she can move on to the next phase of her life.

I chewed through the entire series on Friday night, staying up until 2am to finish them while A. glowered at me because I was hogging the computer.

It's not the way most fans would have experienced the series. Part of the pleasure of serial fiction is building a relationship with the characters over time. But even in binge mode, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries are addictive viewing.

The first episode is here. It's only three minutes long. Go on. One episode won't hurt, will it?


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