Thursday, September 6, 2012

"Lizzie Bennet Diaries" - A Critique.

I’ve been thinking about adaptations a lot lately, mainly due to the recent kerfuffle regarding the two modern day re-imaginings of the classic character Sherlock Holmes, BBC’s “Sherlock” and the upcoming CBS show “Elementary”. The main argument seems to be over the supposed audacity of CBS to commission a modern day adaptation of Holmes independently after Stephen Moffat turned down their offer to do it stateside for them. Regardless of one’s opinions of each shows, to declare that one show or creator has the final word on a specific adaptation is pretty strange, especially since “Sherlock” is not the first modern day version of a classic source material. Everyone from the Coen Brothers to Baz Luhrmann to Gus Van Sant to Laurents and Bernstein has done this. One of the reasons art is so special is that it can be interpreted differently by every single person, and something new and amazing can be created from the foundations. There’s no such thing as the definitive “Hamlet” or, in the instance of today’s topic, the definitive “Pride & Prejudice”. The window dressing may change but the very essence of the story can still remain.

However, interesting ideas do not always blossom into fully formed artworks independent of their source material.

The concept behind “Lizzie Bennet Diaries”, created by Vlog Brother Hank Green and Bernie Su, is a simple one: take the characters and situations from the classic Jane Austen novel and apply them to the real world, with Lizzie, a student living at home with her two sisters and parents, narrating the tale through her web-series, as produced by best friend Charlotte. On the surface, it’s a sweet, interesting idea and translates the novel’s exploration of cultural and relationship expectations for a 21st century society, particularly the changes in attitudes towards women. The first quarter of the web-series is by and large a fun, entertaining adaptation, but it quickly became apparent to me that Green and Su had lost their way.

Katya has already discussed the characters and her problems with them, and I agree with her in her assessment. Green and Su have done a very literal translation of these characters from 19th century to modern day, and their characterisation feels occasionally sloppy and borderline insulting. From the practically whimpering Jane who is given nothing to do but be “nice” in the most one note manner possible, to the “slut” Lydia, a teenage girl shamed by her supposedly progressive sister for daring to express her sexuality. Green and Su have expressed regret over their initial characterisation of Lydia, and her spin-off web-series has gone some way in helping to flesh her out beyond the one trait she was initially given, but I was particularly bothered by this explanation from the creators:

As for where it came from, I think it was a by product of our early development of the character and “what would Lydia be if she was modernized”.  We just overlooked it (not just Hank and I, but the whole writing team as well). Our only real response to this is that the Limbaugh “slut” comments and the gender political lines of this year’s presidential campaign hadn’t happened yet when we wrote and shot those episodes.
Basically, playfully referring to a bold, totally unapologetic, and presumably very promiscuous young woman (annoying sister or not) as a “slut” today has very different connotations now than it did 3-4 months ago. Again not defending, just giving context.

If your defence for incredibly weak and women shaming characterisation is “The Rush Limbaugh thing hadn’t happened yet” then you seriously need to take a step back and understand just what is wrong with this sentence. It’s not just that Lydia is characterised as a “slut”. It’s that this is her defining characteristic and is thrown around by a protagonist who, while embodying the stubbornness of Austen’s Bennet to varying degrees of success, declares herself to be modern and progressive. Her attitudes would be more fitting coming from her traditional mother, who Lizzie frequently decries.

Ultimately, the issue with “Lizzie Bennet Diaries” rests in Green and Su’s failure to understand the source material. In the context of Austen’s time, the need for a good marriage was a pressing issue, particularly for women. Education and independent living was not exactly an option for Lizzie and her sisters, and Austen is fully aware of the unfairness in this. The modern day adaptation that does not make inherent changes to the themes of the book will inevitably fail because in modern day Western society, the need for a good marriage is not an urgent one. Women can now go to university, college or the workplace independent of marriage. Of course we’ve still got a hell of a way to go in terms of full gender equality but we’ve moved forward enough for the issues of the Bennets to be archaic in our world. Lizzie’s social, cultural and economic standing demands a marriage of her.

While the modern Bennet money troubles are discussed, the solution to them is not marriage. As Katya has discussed, nothing is stopping Lizzie, Jane or Lydia from entering the workplace in some capacity. I could understand if job hunting were mentioned in the series, and the difficulties young students and graduates face today in getting a leg up on the careers ladder, but instead we have Lizzie rejecting an offer that would undoubtedly save her family home because of her ethics. This, as well as her falling out with Charlotte for taking the job offer, does not fit with the conflict of the source material. Rejecting a marriage offer is not the same as rejecting a job offer. Charlotte supposedly selling out her integrity to work with Collins (not so much a character as a child’s drawing in terms of personality and portrayal) is not the same as marrying him. Charlotte, the most fleshed out and interesting character in the series, does not face the same issues as her source material counterpart, and she can’t because it just wouldn’t work in a modern day setting. She enters a life of contentment with a man she does not love because she is over the hill by her society’s standards and a drain on her family. She has no other options available to her. While modern Charlotte also has financial and family issues, which are barely mentioned, the idea of entering a job she isn’t 100% happy in is a pretty common one today, especially for women. Lizzie’s reaction to the news is not only overblown, it’s downright cruel and entirely unfitting with the supposedly modern themes of the piece.

Green and Su changed the setting for “Lizzie Bennet Diaries” but didn’t change much else, and as such, the project cannot fully work as an adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”. There are many things to like about the web-series, particularly Charlotte, but overall it will always fall short. The choice of a web-series primarily documented from the point-of-view of Lizzie is also particularly problematic since it only give us a subjective narrative of events. If you’re interested in a modern re-imagining of Austen that succeeds in balancing the essence of Austen’s work with a contemporary spin, I heartily suggest the movie “Clueless”, which takes “Emma” and turns it into a hilarious satire of the politics of privileged high schoolers. Of course, Green and Su still have some way to go before the series wraps up, and the potential for something greater is still there. But for me, the show cannot succeed as an adaptation of the source material unless it changes the central theme to properly fit the setting. 

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