In particular, I love web series that are literary adaptations, because due to budgets and copyright laws, literary web series have to be particularly inventive in bringing classic stories to modern day, making them relatable to internet audiences.
- Initial conceit (or, why does this character have a blog?)
- Audience acknowledgement & interaction
- How are other perspectives integrated?
- Inventiveness (with camera stuff, settings, etc.)
- Quality of Adaptation (modernization of problematic elements, captured the spirit of the original)
- Conceit: Pretty straightforward – Lizzie Bennet is a grad student in Communications doing this as her project, presenting her views in contrast to her mother’s. What starts out as documenting Lizzie’s opinions ends up getting involved in a whole lot of drama.
- Audience acknowledgement & interaction: High acknowledgement and interaction. Lizzie’s videos are very public and very popular in-universe. The story even takes from the audience quite a bit, responding to the multiple requests for Darcy, and even affecting the self-esteem of Lydia. Acknowledges the problems of putting your life and the lives of those around you on the internet, but how communicating with strangers can help to communicate with people closer to you.
- Are other perspectives integrated?: Other characters take over Lizzie’s blog or have their own side blog, and show the holes in Lizzie’s sometimes flawed logic.
- Inventiveness: This was pretty much the first well-known literary web series, so launching the whole art form definitely counts! Also, two words: costume theater.
- Quality of Adaptation: Lizzie Bennet Diaries, rather than being a straight point-by-point adaptation, streamlined the events to make sense for modern day – house parties become pub visits, estates become companies, problems with land inheritance laws become problems with student debt and bad economy. Characters only just sketched out in the original text are fleshed out, and Lizzie herself is not only the modern Elizabeth, but the voice of self-exploring 20-somethings everywhere.
But my favorite method of adaptation was the new life injected into main themes of pride and prejudice. When the original book came out, the audience would have been surprised to discover, along with Elizabeth, the hidden depths of Darcy. But 200 years later, when “Where is my Darcy?” is the common phrase among Austenites, no one is surprised Darcy is better than he seems. So, Pemberley Digital brought back the element of surprise by making Lydia Bennet, an irresponsible flake in the original book, the one truly misunderstood by Lizzie (though dear Darcy still plays an important role).
The only thing maybe lost in adaptation is the fact that, in the original book, Lizzie was more right than wrong, whereas in the web series, she seems more wrong than right. Additionally, the generational/power conflict emphasized by Elizabeth’s encounter with Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the book does not quite translate in Lizzie’s confrontation with Caroline Lee, as Lizzie and Caroline are peers and Caroline does not have nearly as much power over Lizzie, thus Lizzie standing up to her is not as big a deal.
On the other hand, perhaps a figure such as the original Lady Catherine cannot exist at full power in a modern adaptation precisely because American society does not have the same rigid, blood-based hierarchy as Regency England.
Emma Approved, 2013-2014
- Conceit: Emma Woodhouse is documenting her greatness in lifestyle excellence as head of the consulting firm Emma Approved…eh…it does fall in line with the character, but some see it as over-the-top.
- Audience acknowledgement & interaction: Emma’s videos, except for the Q&As, are private. But she has cameras on the desks of everyone who works there (to the consternation of some of them). I think this is where a lot of fans got lost, because the audience didn’t affect the story the way it did before.
- Are other perspectives integrated?: Swiveling to other people’s desks helps. Also, Harriet has a music blog which often reflects her mood and her growing confidence in herself.
- Inventiveness: Month-long arcs of consulting clients in an office setting. More space, multiple rooms, in-universe charities made real.
- Quality of Adaptation: I love the way the characters were adapted, on one hand. The themes of appearance vs. true character are even more apparent in a web series format, where often charisma rules the day. Emma starts out ingratiating, but we really root for her by the end. Knightly is as lovely as ever, but now with more of a sense of humor (also helps that he’s not above get this time around). Harriet no longer stands in Emma’s shadow and grows beyond a project to a true friend.
The supporting characters are all well-sketched and memorable, with the addition of LBD’s Caroline Lee as the infamous Mrs. Elton an incredible twist. The resolutions of the main pairings (Emma/Knightley and Harriet/B-Mart) were extremely satisfying, almost more so than the ones in LBD!
On the other hand, the adaptation of the story at times felt choppy. The month-long arcs of each character getting helped by Emma wasn’t quite organic, and didn’t quite fall in line with the format of the original book, and by keeping the action confined to the offices, it has been argued that an element of the story and characterization – mainly Emma’s interactions with her neighbors and her father – is lost. So, as an adaptation, it may not be the strongest. Still, it’s an enjoyable, inventive adaptation.
- Conceit: Jane Eyre is a nursing graduate embarking on a new chapter in her life, and wants to be brave like Lizzie. Though Jane narrates her own story in the original book as well, she’s a shy character who might seem unlikely to put herself on display on the internet. Though Jane doesn’t start out with a strong reason to start blogging, once she gets going it becomes a great form of self-expression for her (the original Jane was an artist, updated to a photographer).
- Audience acknowledgement & interaction: Jane’s videos are public, and she does do Q&As, but the audience doesn’t really affect the story much more than that. However, Jane does acknowledge that her audience might serve as witness to the weirdness going on, proving she isn’t crazy (and possibly account for her whereabouts if she turns up dead!)
- Are other perspectives integrated?: Sometimes other people find the camera, or don’t realize that Jane left her camera on somewhere. Mostly, however, this is Jane’s story, and she tells it well.
- Inventiveness: Outdoor shots, not afraid to get downright creepy, meta-commentary episode of Mary Rivers watching all of Jane’s videos.
- Quality of Adaptation: Jane Eyre is a pretty weird novel, by modern standards, and a problematic one, what with its shortsighted treatment of race, mental illness (the half-Creole Mason family hinted as being somewhat crude and prone to mental illness), and culture (Adele and her mother are put down for being French), and it’s arguably unhealthy relationships (since Rochester is kind of a jerk who has slept with a lot of women, and St. John is… well… Jane’s cousin).
So I’m glad a lot of this is either removed or approached with more sensitivity, while preserving much of the darkness of the original novel.
However, the adaptation does lose a bit of the supernatural element that makes the original a gothic novel, and since Jane isn’t facing nearly as steep of odds in terms of her class and gender, she’s as a result a somewhat softer character. But she is nonetheless strong and principled in the face of going it alone, and her story of finding a place and people to belong to is just as fulfilling as the original. Though the ending may feel rushed due to circumstances beyond the show’s control, overall it’s a strong modern adaptation.
- Conceit: Frankie Price (formerly Fanny) is vlogging for her brother in the Navy to stay up-to-date. Kind of like Vlogbrothers, only smaller… much smaller. It works for a shy character like Frankie, and has the added benefit of giving her a voice where other film adaptations have difficulty producing her interior life.
- Audience acknowledgement & interaction: In-universe, Will seems to be the only one who watches, whereas actually this show has hundreds of views.
- Are other perspectives integrated?: Other people often take over Frankie’s blog, even when she’s there, since she’s more quiet than others around her.
- Inventiveness: Outdoor shots, more personally focused (since it’s only for Will), British!
- Quality of Adaptation: This series is still in progress, but in terms of where we are so far, a lot of great stuff! Mansfield as a hotel rather than an estate makes sense in terms of the reputation associated with the Bertrams as a result, and gives the opportunity to present the Crawfords as interior designers rather than just random visitors. Having Frankie’s mother as an old friend of the family rather than a relative holds Frankie to the same indebtedness as in the original, without the whole “she marries her cousin” thing. And the most recent arc of Lover’s Vows updated to a raunchy amateur film makes perfect sense.
Once again, a lot of the problematic elements have been smoothed out as a result of modernization. But interestingly, many of the characters in this version are quite a bit softened, perhaps so as not to have Frankie be a product of abuse like Fanny.
The Bertrams are generally kind, if slightly dismissive, of Frankie, rather than outright cruel, though Edmund still understands her the best. And Mr. “Rory” Rushworth, rather than just an awkward old rich guy paired with Maria Bertram for reputation’s sake, is awkward in a more adorkable way, genuinely caring for Rhea and heartbroken to see her drifting from him due to Henry Crawford. In this way, Rory becomes an interesting parallel to Frankie, as she too is watching someone she cares about drifting away due to the Crawfords.
As for Frankie herself, having her on camera does wonders for her relatability. In the original book, we mostly see Fanny overshadowed in social situations, rarely getting the chance to be her true self due to her station and Mrs. Norris’s machinations.
(I do miss Mrs. Norris as an actual presence, if only because she’s so fun to hate).
But Fanny always showed passion for certain things, and opened up around Edmund and Will. By having Will as a more constant presence as Frankie talks to him through the videos, the audience sees Frankie more often as her true self, in contrast to when she is overshadowed by the horribly awkward situations of people around her (such as being caught in the middle of Henry subtly seducing Rhea).
But even then, her frustration and sadness is clearly expressed by the actress, making Fanny/Frankie Price no longer the dull unfavorite of the Austen canon. As someone who always liked Fanny, it’s a major relief, and I hope this series continues to be awesome!
- Conceit: Mary is vlogging for self-expression, and for her tutor and psychologist to track her progress. Reluctant, but grows to like it. Audience also sees wider world outside of Mary’s personal blogs.
- Audience acknowledgement & interaction: So far, not much audience interaction, so these might not be public in-universe. Might be Q&A in future?
- Are other perspectives integrated?: Videos alternate between Mary’s blogs and scenes in her life. Most videos do have Mary present, except for one with the Sower siblings. Certain episodes also follow the perspective of Mary’s cat as she follows her owner through the woods, which are always interesting.
- Inventiveness: Gorgeous use of outdoor space, mixes traditional and new media storytelling, cat-cam .
- Quality of Adaptation: Thus far, this seems to be the most far flung from its original (other that Peter + Wendy, for different reasons) in part due to the massive age difference for the characters (10-year-old Mary and Collin are now teenagers). Mary is as sharp tongued as ever, but now takes to smoking behind the housekeeper’s back.
And Collin… Collin is turned into Callie, female, diabetic and hinted to be so full of social anxiety that she never leaves her basement-bedroom. It makes sense that the illness keeping Callie inside was changed from the original, as a hunchback can be corrected more easily these days than in 1910, but if social anxiety is in play, it will be interesting to see how the writers plan to ease her out of it.
Additionally, in this version the cousins don’t meet for the first time after Mary has been orphaned – they played together as kids. Mary is thus not delighted to discover her secret cousin, but instead angry with everyone involved in keeping Callie’s presence a secret… including Callie herself. Clearly Misselthwaite is willing to make big changes, but so far it hasn’t been for the worse, so we’ll see where it goes from here.
(Also unique to the series- our author Ms. Burnett makes a concrete appearance as Mary’s psychologist! Very meta XD)
The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, 2014-present
(Adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, and 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy)
- Conceit: In the town of Neverland, Ohio, 27-year-old Wendy Darling runs an advice blog through her family’s paper, the Kensington Chronicle, which also captures the lives of her brothers, John and Michael, her vitriolic female friend Lily Bagha, and her best friend (who wants the be more-than-a-friend), Peter Pan. The blog was a great starting point, and fits with Wendy’s motherly personality from the original, but realistically not all the action happens in front of Wendy’s camera.
Not-as-realistically, the rest of the action occurs from Tinkerbell’s perspective, but it is so brilliantly done that it seems like fairies should have been included in a web series ages ago!
- Audience acknowledgement & interaction: On Wendy’s vlogs, Wendy does talk to the audience and answers questions, though I think most are fabricated to move the plot along. During the fairy-cam moments, no acknowledgement of audience directly, but the businesses and characters created by audience members on the Neverland Twitter registrar are sometimes referenced (and on that note, the P + W social media platforms interact a LOT with audience).
- Are other perspectives integrated?: The fairy-cam gives the audience more movement and perspectives than Wendy’s vlog alone would allow, and each character gets their day in the sun, so kudos to P + W for that! Season 2 also adds cameras in Wendy’s office at JhMedia (similar to Emma Approved) and Peter’s playacting videos, splitting the narrative between the small town and the big city in interesting parallel ways.
- Inventiveness: The fairy-cam, and inclusion of magic in a web series in general (though it doesn’t really effect the plot). Also, surprisingly might be the most lewd of the shows reviewed so far, due to veiled references to smoking pot and “magic” brownies.
- Quality of Adaptation: New Peter + Wendy is by no means a faithful adaptation of the beloved novel in terms of plot. And really, how could it be? By choosing a fantasy over a comedy of manners/period piece, the creators faced a particularly huge challenge in adaptation.
The basic tenants are there – Wendy being too old to stay where she is, escapes with Peter, but realizes she has to grow up and leave Neverland, leaving Peter behind by his own choice. But other than that, the adaptation basically takes the original characters, fleshes them out as modern 20-year-olds, and uses them and Neverland as a launch point for a rumination of what it means to grow up -or not- in the 2010s.
But it works so well!
The characterizations are spot on, the plot both light and deeply thought provoking, and the magic of the original is still retained in surprising ways. They even made sure Hook went by “Jas” rather than “James,” a facet of the original lost in time. The only character alteration of note is that Wendy is much more willing to be silly than in the original, but it’s for the better- no one wants to see Peter and Wendy fall in love if Wendy acts like his mother most of the time! I’m really excited to see where the series goes next – whatever they do they’re bound to be more faithful than the Once Upon A Time Neverland arc (kidding… but not really).
Looking at all these series, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single element that makes an adaptation a good one. But if I had to take a stab, I think it is heart, humor, and sincerity in the characters, plus a relatable plot dealing with changes and new beginnings, that most draws people to a series, and all the ones above definitely managed to capture that!
So, what do you think? Do you think these web series capture the best of the books they’re based on? Got any other examples you want to talk about?