By Tereza Walsbergerová
Have you ever wondered where Elizabeth Bennet might work if she lived in the 21st century? What would Anne Shirley think of poetry slams if she was a college student in 2013 Canada? What would Dr. Frankenstein look like as a modern young woman? The internet has you covered. From all-time classics, such as Pride and Prejudice or Little Women, to slightly more obscure works, such as The Secret Garden, or even some tales from Greek mythology, people have decided to give their favourite heroes and heroines a makeover. This article attempts to get down to the nitty-gritty of modern adaptations of classic literary works on YouTube, focusing on their originality, interactivity, and contemporariness.
One can say that producing modern adaptations of classic literary works on YouTube has become something of a phenomenon as of late. Of course, the idea itself is by no means new – theatre has been doing it for a long time (e.g. My Fair Lady, All Shook Up, West Side Story) and film and television have kept up (e.g. Clueless, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Pretty Woman). Some authors have not only modernised the stories but also reimagined them to such an extent that they barely resemble the original, which can be said, for example, about the 1990 film Edward Scissorhands inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the 2001 film Bridget Jones’ Diary (and its sequels) inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Again, the “genre” of modern adaptation has been going through sort of a revival lately, based on the number of such TV series that have appeared in the past 6 years. The most popular is perhaps the BBC version of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, which became an instant hit in 2010 and played major role in triggering a new wave of interest in modernising classic literature. Similar series, such as Elementary, Hannibal, or Selfie, followed close behind and in many ways “set the groundwork” for projects created by the next generation whose main platform is neither theatre, nor film, nor television, but the internet – and specifically YouTube.
Given the aforementioned examples, one can say that the basis of any modernisation is the choice of how one may work with the original as a template, so to speak. What happens with that template or how it is “filled out” then depends on the platform one is using and the kind of story one chooses to tell. When it comes to modern adaptation presented as a web series, besides modernisation there is also the aspect of contemporisation. In an article “The Best Blog Reinventions of Classic Books” by Kaite Welsh, The Guardian manages to sum both of these aspects up by calling these project
reinventions – and indeed, that is what they are – “changed” and “presented in a different or new way” (which is how the Merriam-Webster defines “reinventing”). In other words, not only are the characters in these projects wearing jeans and cardigans instead of frocks and bonnets, texting and tweeting instead of writing elaborate letters, going to poetry slams or wild parties instead of attending balls, or using words such as “adorbs”, “OMG” or “totally” rather than “affectation”, “supercilious”, or “swell”, but they are also attuned to contemporary social and political issues.
There are exceptions, of course – for instance, the authors of Green Gables Fables made sure to keep their main heroine, Anne Shirley (or “AnneWithAnE” – which is her YouTube handle) – faithful to her original characterisation in order not to lose her main character traits, while the rest of the characters, such as Gilbert Blythe or Diana Barry, have a way more modern feel. Similarly, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries managed to keep some of the old-fashioned feel through the character of Lizzie’s mother, which becomes clear as soon as the very first video starts by Lizzie’s exact retelling of the first sentence from the original novel (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”) and explaining to her audience that “her mom belongs to a class of parents she likes to call the 2.5WPF Club”, which stands for “staying home with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence”. Ultimately, though, as The Guardian says, “while modernised adaptations have a freedom to explore the original novel’s themes in ways the original authors could never have envisaged, they remain surprisingly faithful to their source texts.”
Furthermore, some of these adaptations may also find themselves not only in a different time period, but also in a different setting – a different country even. This is the case with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, for instance, which has moved from the early nineteenth-century English countryside to 2010s American suburbia. Compared to the CBS TV series Elementary, which was also transported to America but kept its main character British and thus maintained at least some of its original “Britishness”, everything in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was Americanised. Notwithstanding, nothing about this Americanisation really disrupts the story (not even the accents), possibly because the video blog format allows the authors to tell rather than show the audience the context. Additionally, as the backgrounds used by the vloggers are simply different walls, they are not country specific.
Vlogging and Interactivity
The fact that a video blog (or simply “vlog”) is the ‘go-to’ format for these projects also needs to be highlighted. What is then the possible reason for this great synthesis of modern adaptations and vlogs? In his book Naked Lens: Video Blogging & Video Journaling to reclaim the YOU in YouTube: Use Your Camera to Ignite Creativity, Increase Mindfulness, and View Life from a New Angle, Michael Sean Kaminsky lists several reasons for starting a video blog and thus “reclaiming video as a tool to use rather than be used by” (17). Among these are: communication, self-exploration, play with identity, finding community, staying connected, making history, and being a pioneer. Again, one may say that that all of these key reasons fit really well with the idea of a modern adaptation. Hence, vlogging becomes a viable format for these projects.
When it comes to communication, Kaminsky notes that “keeping a video journal fine-tunes the part of yourself that feels drawn to help shape the world around you” (17). Correspondingly, a video blog can help enhance the main character’s ability to communicate with the reader on a very personal level – by identification, the sense of nowness, and relevance, which is also closely related to self-exploration and staying connected.
Play with identity and connectivity are directly related one of the pillars of the idea behind these projects: interactivity. According to Kaminsky, “identity on-camera is more flexible than in real life but also subtler and more honest than the old text-based method of screen names and multiple identities” (19). Modern adaptations of classic novels take this identity-play even further by adding several extra layers to the mix: besides the original character, there is also the modern character, the way this modern character chooses to present themselves on their video blog, and then there is the actor and the actor’s choice of direction when it comes to portraying the character. That makes at least five layers.
Therefore, it can be said that these projects contain multitudes of meta-narratives, which makes them multidimensional, which in turn makes the audience think deeper about not only the characters themselves, but their own position in regards to them. However, these “meta-moments” can also effectively disrupt the illusion, which tends to happen during scenes in which the characters discuss technical aspects of the video. Specifically, one might find themselves weirded out by the often awkward attempts of the authors to explain why some of the most key scenes from the story actually end up on camera (most often they forget to turn off the computer or accidentally switch the camera on).
Connectivity is then closely related to the way these projects communicate in actual reality. As has been mentioned, this does not only include the communication between the characters and the audience, but also the communication between the characters outside of the video as a part of the narrative. According to The Guardian, “authors have always relied on communication techniques as a narrative device – where Austen used letters and Wilkie Collins had diary entries, now we have Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.” This is related to the more prosaic part of such interactivity – the physical ability of the real-life audience to communicate with not only the authors, but also the characters themselves. This can be done either in the comment section under each video or on social media, such as Twitter or Instagram. Moreover, this sort of interactivity also further increases the meta-narrative dimension of these projects.
In addition, the authors sometimes make special Q&A videos on their channel, in which either the characters or the actors answer questions from the audience as a way of maintaining direct connection between the creators and the fandom. Some of the authors – such as Hannah and Karen of 221B – even consider this interaction one of the main objectives of their projects. On their Indiegogo funding webpage, they said that they hope that “[the project] will be able to challenge the border between creator and consumer, by offering a new way of displaying the devotion, artistry, and excitement of fans and fandom by extending their ability to contribute to the canon of a series. ”
Why do so many contemporary young writers, filmmakers, and actors want to modernise these old classics, then? The answer might be that perhaps they want to take something they know really well and that they used to love as children and make it relevant in today’s world. Contemporising does not necessarily have to mean simply bringing a classic into the present by giving Elizabeth Bennet a mobile phone or having Sherlock Holmes googling for answers. It also means including contemporary issues and agendas, such as sexuality, gender equality, or mental illness.
This is related to the last two of Kaminsky’s reasons for starting a vlog: making history and being a pioneer. After all, these authors can – while being careful not the disrupt the integrity of the original – use these projects as platforms to discuss these issues whereas film and television productions might run into problems in this area. This is why the feminist undertones of Pride and Prejudice are being highlighted and contemporised in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (e.g. Lydia and her abusive boyfriend, Charlotte Lu’s technical abilities, or Lizzie’s frequent fights with her mother about being single), why there are many characters of colour everywhere, why there is an LGBT character in Green Gables Fables, or why the authors of 221B and Frankenstein, MD, changed the gender of the main characters.
All in all, these adaptations manage to fill a very specific gap in popular culture and have managed to do so by being original, interactive, and contemporary. Consequently, that is how this new postmodern multifaceted genre created by fans for fans has become a phenomenon and will remain one as long as there are enough meta-combinations to choose from.
221B – Sherlock Holmes (Sir A. C. Doyle)
Emma Approved – Emma (Jane Austen)
Frankenstein, MD – Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
Further Adventures of Cupid and Eros – Greek Mythology
Green Gables Fables – Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
In Earnest – The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)
Lil’ Women – Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
The Autobiography of Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries – Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
The March Family Letters – Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
The Misselthwaite Archives – The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Welcome to Sanditon – Sanditon (Jane Austen)
Kaminsky, Michael S. Naked Lens: Video Blogging & Video Journaling to reclaim the YOU in YouTube: Use Your Camera to Ignite Creativity, Increase Mindfulness, and View Life from a New Angle. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Organik Media Press, 2010. Print.