As long as there has been literature, that literature has been adapted into lots of different formats. From operas to comics, from plays to films, to television series; classic narratives are the source material for so much of today’s culture. However, as technology and online platforms have shifted, a new format for this literature has emerged: literary web series.
Literary web series are series of short videos on YouTube, usually between 3 and 8 minutes per episode, that take their inspiration from classic literature. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Frankenstein, the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and more, are just some of the books which have got the YouTube web series treatment.
The first series which really established the genre, and began to make waves, was The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, based on Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Running from April 2012 to March 2013 over 100 main episodes, and with occasional accompanying videos on side channels, the whole narrative is covered in a fresh, interesting, and relevant way. The series translates the classic novel to modern day, following Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements), a postgraduate student in web development who decides to do a vlog of her life for a year. From her mad parents, to her seemingly very different sisters, to the single eligible bachelor who lives next door, she never runs low on topics to talk about. Through the use of costume re-enactments, side notes added by her editor friend Charlotte (Julia Cho), and the frequent interruptions of her sisters Jane (Laura Spencer) and Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles), the product is a lovable, real story of family, love and of course, those age old themes of pride and prejudice. Written and Directed by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick, and produced by YouTube big name Hank Green, the show has seen critical success, and has revolutionised the validity of web series as a format. The show even won an Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media – Original Interactive Program.
There’s a lot of things that make the show special. Firstly, the format was completely original at the time, and it clearly works, given the way that other shows have followed suit. The platform is completely unique, and through the use of side channels, they were able to offer different perspectives of the story. Secondly, the modernisation allows for some interesting commentary about gender roles, and also the ways in which perceptions of marriage have shifted since the publication of the original novel. Thirdly, the writing and acting is genuinely superb. The characterisation is true to Austen’s original, and each actor has a way of making it their own, and really evoking emotion and making sure you’re invested in their story (For Ep. 87, Ashley Clements and Mary Kate Wiles deserve many awards).
Since then, many other stories have found their way into the genre, with Pemberley Digital (the production company of LBD) producing Emma Approved and Frankenstein M.D.; both modern versions of other classic novels. These series tend to be professionally shot and usually rather well funded, appearing as high-quality web series on YouTube. However, even those with less money have taken their hand at trying to adapt classic literature, and some of the results have fared quite well. For example, The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (based on, you guessed it, Jane Eyre) and Nothing Much to Do (Shakespeare’s Much Ado) have both seen favourable reviews and an increasing fan base, despite the fact that they were just made by students.
The genre has since expanded further, so that it is no longer just modern adaptations, but series based on authors and ideas in different ways too. For example, Classic Alice, follows the endeavours of a student who tries to live her life based on the morals and narratives of stories such as Crime and Punishment and Macbeth. As well as this, Edgar Allen Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner, created by Shipwrecked Comedy, and has very recently finished its run, focuses more on the people behind the literature. Edgar Allen Poe (Sean Persaud), invites all his author friends, including the likes of George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and Charlotte Bronte, to a dinner party that soon goes south. A charming and witty web series, this show focuses on exploring the famous characters rather than a famous narrative. Another take on the genre is Yulin Kuang‘s I Didn’t Write This, which explores extracts from texts that mean a lot to her, and she has directed short videos to illustrate or accompany them. Kinda like music videos – but for books! It’s neat.
The whole point of Literary Web Series is to engage readers in a wider culture through the web, and to make the literature of the past the media of today. It’s a great way to connect with classic literature, and also just brings so much happiness and fun to the world. If you’re a book lover, and are yet to discover these series; get on it!