BUT IF for some reason you haven't discovered the amazing modern (ultra modern, even) things they're doing with Austen's work — because, you know, you've been living in a cave, apparently — Joy Penny is here to tell you what's what when it comes to Pemberley Digital, AND she takes a look at one of my favorite aspects — PD's attention to creating a diverse cast!
Check it out and share your favorite scenes, retellings or casting decisions in the comments. And don't forget, Joy's also giving away a copy of her book, A Love for the Pages, so you might wanna check that out!
Why Austenites and New Fans Alike Love Pemberley Digital
We all have that friend or family member who looks at our obsession with historical romances as something of an oddity. “I prefer romantic comedies,” she tells you before you can explain that Ms. Jane Austen just might have invented the romantic comedy she enjoys so much. Two singles not looking for love or, in the case of someone like Marianne, perhaps too desperately seeking it? Check. Misunderstandings (“He’s the last person I’d be with!”), loving the wrong person for a bit and a lot of regret? Check again. A happily ever after in which all misunderstandings are cleared up? You’re looking at an Austen novel, and by extension, an Austen-based TV series or film.
Maybe it’s the period costumes or the rich countryside settings. Perhaps the dialog seems a bit odd to the ear trained to hear modern slang. Maybe Jane Austen’s status as a classic literary author makes the casual reader think “school assignment” and assume the pages are a snore fest. (I’ve had to tell more than one person how Austen’s narration is full of humor!) Whatever keeps your friends and family from reading Austen, or if they’re not big readers, at least watching your favorite adaptations with you, you’re probably not going to convince them to change their minds on your own.
And if there’s one thing that Austenites can concede, even if we love immersing ourselves in period pieces and escaping to that time in history and (unless you’re British) that place that’s so unlike our own, it’s that, owing to the time she wrote in, there isn’t a lot of variety of people in Austen novels. I can’t think of anyone, even among minor characters, who’s not Caucasian (sorry if I’m wrong), and even the most “diverse” Austen might get – aristocrats vs. the working class, such as Emma vs. Harriet – is rarely in focus. Her heroines and their love interests are, if not born into high society, raised or thrust into it. The most pitiable characters are simply low on the high society social ladder, but they can still get away with spending most of their days in leisure with servants to assist them, even if virtually “impoverished” like the Dashwood sisters.
So what’s an Austenite looking to show her friends and family that Jane Austen stories are timeless and accessible to do? Check out Pemberley Digital.
Pride and Prejudice, Emma and even Sanditon Get a Modern Makeover
As you might guess from the channel name, Pemberley Digital was born out of a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Although they weren’t the first to modernize an Austen story (Clueless is one of the most memorable to come to mind), LBD was the first YouTube series—free to watch—to modernize Austen that made a big splash. Like Emmy-winning splash.
Elizabeth Bennet, now a grad school student with two sisters instead of five, narrates her life into the camera under the guise of a school project. Inviting her sisters and friends to vlog with her, the plot of Pride and Prejudice unfolds with fun reenactments, clever dialog and a lot of humor. Famously, because she can’t stand him and there’s no logical reason for him to know about Lizzie’s online diaries, Darcy himself doesn’t appear for quite a long time. But you feel like you’ve met him because Lizzie and the rest of the cast are that effective at bringing their impressions of him to life.
Welcome to Sanditon followed. A shorter series with many more liberties taken with the original material, it acts as a spin-off to LBD. Based on Austen’s unfinished novel only with Gigi (Georgiana) Darcy as the primary observer, it updates Sanditon to a small town in California and invited the audience—the real audience—to submit videos weighing in on events while pretending they lived in the town. It was an ambitious idea and fun to watch, although not as popular as the ones based on Austen’s completed novels.
Emma Approved, the most recent and currently airing series, turns Emma Woodhouse into a successful party planner, life coach and professional matchmaker, which is a clever twist on Emma’s meddling, if well-meaning, attitude from the original book. Harriet is her plucky personal assistant who goes from shy and awkward to more confident under Emma’s guidance—although, as in the book, she takes Emma’s relationship advice entirely too seriously.
Austen Gets Diverse
Other than the fresh take and modern setting, Pemberley Digital gets so much right about bringing Austen stories into the modern world—like making the cast more diverse. Asian American actors play important roles in LBD such as Charlotte Lu (Lucas), Bing Lee (Charles Bingley) and Caroline Lee (Bingley). The Griffiths siblings in Welcome to Sanditon are African American. But Emma Approved is where diversity really shines.
Main character Emma Woodhouse is played by an Asian American actor, as is her sister, Izzy (Isabella) Knightley, and Frank Churchill. Since Pemberley Digital works exist in the same world, Asian American Caroline Lee from LBD even takes the place of a minor character (to name her would be to spoil!) in a brilliant merging of two characters with similar dispositions. Sweet if a tad annoying Maddy Bates and her niece (and Emma’s friend/rival) Jane Fairfax are both African American. Although there have been diverse adaptations before, such as Bollywood versions, Pemberley Digital makes Austen’s work more multicultural and reflective of the world we live in—so everyone can see that her stories are really timeless and accessible to all.
These adaptations are turning non-Austenites into fans of her work. Check out any comment section for these videos, and you’ll find a lot of people guessing what might happen and begging the book readers not to spoil the plot. These are the very people we’ve longed to introduce to Austen’s works, and they’re responding to these twice-a-week YouTube video versions in spades.
We’re hoping for more Austen adaptations in the future, although Pemberley Digital’s next project is actually Frankenstein, M.D. (with a female Dr. Frankenstein!), so time will tell if the company goes back to finish the Austen catalog or continues branching out to other public domain works. In the meantime, share these videos with your romantic comedy-loving friends (and tell them to read the book version that just came out), and you’ll finally be able to geek out about Elizabeth and Darcy or Emma and Knightley together!
About the guest poster: Joy Penny is a pen name for a writer who adores books. She also writes YA under a different name. A Love for the Pages (June 2014) is her new adult romance debut and is a modernized homage to Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
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