Some of the biggest names in the literary canon are back in high demand . . . as New Media's hottest writers. ♦
In 2012, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries appeared on YouTube. A modern-day adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, the show stars 24-year-old grad student Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements) and details her adventures with her sisters, friends, new neighbors, and, of course, William Darcy (Daniel Vincent Gordh). The series updates the setting and some of the plot of the original novel, but the characters, themes, and essence of the story remain the same.
While The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is easily the most watched literature-to-YouTube adaptation, with 265,920 subscribers as of this writing, there are many other literary adaptations reaching huge audiences, including Emma Approved (Emma, by Jane Austen), Frankenstein, M.D. (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley), Nothing Much to Do (Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare), and The March Family Letters (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott). Each of these adaptations is a modernized version of its respective original in video blog (vlog) format, and all have strong followings—the channel for Nothing Much to Do has 10,852 subscribers, while Pemberly Digital, the production company behind a number of popular YouTube literary adaptations, boasts 120,411 subscribers. Clearly, these series are reaching a YouTube-using (i.e. young) audience, but is this attracting new readers to the classics or replacing reading the original with watching YouTube?
Samantha Silber, an English Creative Writing major at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has read Pride & Prejudice and has watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Silber enjoyed the series, saying, “[They brought] the story into a modern setting, [made] the characters feel real and [talk] like modern people—adapting it but staying true to some elements of the main storyline. I think one of the things they do really well in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is using modern humor and outfits and even occupations that stay true to who they were as characters.”
Before television, movies, and YouTube, people had to read the books if they wanted to participate in literary discourse. Then, television and movies began adapting books, and suddenly the phrase “I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie” became common. Still, movies and television shows take time and commitment to enjoy, just like a book. These YouTube series, though, are generally in three- to five-minute episodes. In the digital age, and especially on YouTube, audiences expect to be immediately hooked and remain entertained. Reading books—especially classic literature that all these series come from—takes patience and an active will to remain engaged with the material. So perhaps logically, those that are fans of a YouTube format story may not be the same people to sit down with a densely written book.
But that isn’t necessarily the case. Katheryn Ramirez, a Business Management and Leadership major at Miami University, has not read Pride & Prejudice, nor has she ever seen any adaptations of it. But after watching the first episode of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Ramirez was “intrigued” and said that she might continue watching. More importantly, regarding whether or not the YouTube series would inspire her to read the novel, she said, “There’s potential for me to see what exactly they were interpreting and what was in the book.”
Other viewers of the series have echoed that sentiment. YouTube user L0Lindsay commented on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ discussion page: “Thanks for getting me interested in Jane Austen novels, something I never thought I’d be into.” Other viewers made similar comments: user Miruna Corodeanu said, “We all like a romance from time to time and rethinking a novel written in Britain in the 19th century to fit 21st century America and actually getting it right kinda inspired me so thanks!” [sic] while user katherinedawn commented “[I]f it wasn’t for this project, I never would have read Pride and Prejudice, and would have really missed out. I thought it would be too old fashioned and boring but it wasn’t! Everyone, please read the book!”
So it seems that these YouTube series are, in fact, attracting viewers to read classic literature, as well as to appreciate the classics in a new way. Breanne Moore, a Creative Writing and Biology double major at Miami University, follows The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, a modernization of the Peter Pan canon. When Moore first read the original Peter Pan, she didn't like the book, but she found that she did enjoy later spinoff books and movies.
“[The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy] really does capture the personalities of the characters, just in different situations,” she said. “It did increase my appreciation of the original story, because it does make the characters a lot more relatable; it’s fresh, but it’s still recognizable as that story.”
Moore hits perfectly on the key to this YouTube phenomenon: relatability. The common refrain in praise for these adaptations is that they relate old-fashioned stories to the modern day. Miami University Creative Writing major Jordan Long praised The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, saying that it made the Bennet sisters’ struggles from the original novel much more relatable, and Moore liked that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries made Elizabeth into a “relatable modern women.”
As this movement of watching adaptations of classic literature on YouTube continues to grow, so too will the fan base of classic literature in its original form. So long as the adaptations modernize the characters in a way that allows them to stay true to their original selves, and the spirits of the stories remain intact, classic literature will continue to find a way into the hearts of younger generations.