My Year with Jane Austen: “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” [2012]

mv5bmtg1otk0mzg4nf5bml5banbnxkftztcwotm3mtm5oq4040._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Web Series: “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”

Release Year: 2012

Actors: Lizzie Bennet – Ashley Clements

William Darcy – Daniel Vincent Gordh

Jane Bennet – Laura Spencer

Lydia Bennet – Mary Kate Wiles

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

I watched this for the first time a few years ago. It had been out for a while as “Emma Approved” was also up and concluded. I remember flying through both series pretty quickly and enjoying the heck out of them (and, for the first time, being really annoyed by all the YouTube ads that were breaking up my experience). So, to get a wide range of examples of Jane Austen adaptations, I wanted to include both of these web series in this year’s project.

Sadly, it doesn’t quite hold up as much a second time around. This isn’t a mark against it overall, just that I think it’s the kind of thing that is more of an “experience” watching the first time and less enjoyable the second go around where the limitations of the format begin to glare more when the novelty has worn off. But I’ll start with a few of the positive things that stood out this go-around.

First, I think the series is very creative, especially with the way it changed certain aspects of the original story to fit a modern setting. Woes about family finances become more grounded in talks about second mortgages. Different approaches to marriage become different approaches to career paths. Pemberley becomes Darcy’s media company and Catherine DeBourgh becomes a venture capitalist who is funding Mr. Collins’s own media enterprise. Lydia is a party girl and Wickham is a dumb jock. Even small things like changing Mr. Bingley’s name to Bing Lee are creative as heck. I have to imagine it was really fun writing this series.

Also, for the most part, all of the actors are well-cast and, while clearly distinctive from their book counterparts, they all fit well with the same basic personalities and storylines from the original. I’ll obviously talk about some of the big players later, but I’ll just add here that I particularly liked this version of Charlotte (the hilarious and practical behind-the-scenes counterpart in the production of Lizzie’s videos) and of Georgiana/Gigi (a fresh faced and bubbly presence who gets much more involved in the matchmaking side of things with regards to her brother and Lizzie than the original would ever have dreamed of).

However, this go-around, the story felt unnecessarily drawn out and was rather tedious during the middle portion. It takes a long time to even get to the first “proposal,” let alone everything that came later. I think a good number of episodes probably could have been cut and the series would have ultimately kept up its pace and rhythm better. I have to imagine that this was a lesson learned for “Emma Approved” which has a shorter run time even though it is based off the longer book of the two.

The series also struggled with some of its more serious moments. The actors all felt more at ease with the comedy than the drama and there were times where some of it seemed to slip in quality from the rest. It’s just the kind of thing that is going to play more naturally with a comedic topic. Once we get into the drama with Lydia, I was not only beginning to feel the length of the show again but started to become more uncomfortable watching it. Like the romance, it was hard not to feel voyeuristic about these more serious portions. Yes, my brain knew it was all acted out anyways, but the other part of me cringed for seeing these intimate moments of seemingly “regular” people.

Overall,  I think it’s well worth checking out by all Austen fans. Though I will say that for me, at least, it was an experience that didn’t hold up to a repeat. Which is totally fine! I still remember loving it the first time and anyone who hasn’t seen it and loves these stories will probably feel the same. I do remember liking “Emma Approved” better, so we’ll see how that does the second go-around.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

While the show is definitely bringing new twists to this story, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this Lizzie herself. Due to the nature of this story, her prejudice against Darcy does seem extreme to the point of rather obsessive. I mean, we’ve all met rude guys, but she takes it pretty far. And, overall, this Lizzie is much more cynical and judgmental of almost everyone around her than the version in the book. Elizabeth Bennett definitely jumped to conclusions, but she also seemed to generally treat people with a bit more kindness than this Lizzie. Again, the nature of this series, being a video diary for Lizzie, kind of sets her up for failure here. Most all of it is her talking about other people. And what are diaries made up of?

Yep, diaries = talking crap about a bunch of people behind their back. But when it’s a web series and that’s all you have…your heroine kind of comes off like a bit of a jerk to those around her. True, by the end of the series she does come around on all of this, but it’s still a bit much at times.

The worst was her fall-out with Charlotte. The idea is good, to exchange practicality about marriage with practicality about careers, with Charlotte not subscribing to Lizzie’s “go for the dream” job approach. But, like the problem I had with the 2008 version of “Pride and Prejudice,” this Mr. Collins isn’t that bad (at least not for a first boss, and we’ve all had bad bosses, so c’mon) and Lizzie’s reaction seems completely overblown. Even more so here than in other versions of this story.

Charlotte lays out her reasoning pretty clearly: her family is poor, she thinks much of career success is based on luck, and often a job is a job, something that you make a living doing. I mean…this speaks so much truth to my generation, a bunch of people who graduated from college with massive debts right into a recession where jobs were scarce and those that did exist barely paid.  It’s the RIGHT outlook! And, unlike marriage, a job isn’t meant to be forever. This is the exact sort of golden opportunity that you’d be stupid, and Lizzie is stupid for turning down! You start out with a company in a great position, and after a few years, leverage it into your dream job. This is just reality, and it has all the luck that Charlotte mentioned written all over it: just handed to Lizzie, and then Charlotte, on a gold platter for really no good reason other than a past connection and them being in the right place at the right time. And then Lizzie just tears into Charlotte over it. It’s pretty obnoxious, really. Granted, she does come around pretty quickly. But it’s a tough thing to recover from so early in the show. Not a good look for Lizzie.

I also had a few qualms with the acting itself. I think the actress was best in her comedy moments, especially the dramatizations of past scenes with her parodies of other people. But when the script called for more serious moments, be it the angry confrontation with Darcy, the sister squabble with Lydia and eventual reunion, and even the more serious parts of the romance…I just didn’t feel like the actress was really cut out for it. She tended to overact and her expressions and reactions felt a bit forced.

On the other hand, I really liked the actresses who played Jane and Lydia. I’ll talk more about Lydia in the comedy section. Jane, however, was pretty solid. She’s sweet, kind of quiet, and a great interpretation of the book character into a modern woman. We only see her on and off, but she’s a nice balance to both Lizzie and Lydia.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

We don’t really see much of our heroes in this version. Bing shows up early enough, thinking the videos are just messages to Charlotte. I really like this interpretation of Bing. He’s charming, funny, and easy going. But! Importantly, he’s NOT an idiot. Yes, he does get lead around by his friends, but the series makes great efforts at the end for him to experience his own personal reflection and start making choices for himself. He drops out of med school, admitting he had only been doing it because that’s what his family wanted. And instead he was spending his time working with charities. Jane at first turns down his offer to follower her to NYC where she gets a new job. But after hearing about these moments of clarity on his part and his efforts to begin to make his own choices, she relents and the two are together at least. It’s a nice mini arc for the character, and it ties up some questions about his character quite nicely by allowing him to experience his own personal growth.

I mention this a bit more in the romance section below, but it’s really too bad that we don’t see more of Darcy until at least halfway through the series. Even Bing, we have a face to connect to the stories much earlier which goes a long way for how much we care about his and Jane’s storyline. But I do like the character a lot when we do meet him. His mannerisms are of the sort that it’s easy to see how Lizzie’s interpretations of his rudeness and coldness came to be. And it’s fun to see him loosen up gradually. I particularly liked the last few episodes after they’re together. There’s some fun nods to the book with a mention of his learning to be teased and dealing with Lizzie’s mother and father.

I also liked the way the show used career opportunities instead of proposals as the big kicks for each of the ladies. And through these moments, the heroes also had their moments to shine, with Bing prioritizing Jane’s work and going with her to NYC rather than asking her to stay, and Darcy, perhaps foolishly, originally asking Lizzie to work at his company. She is quick to point out the problems with this, but we also see how he plans to use his network connections to help her with her start-up.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

I really liked this take on Wickham. He’s only on a few episodes, but it’s enough to see how charming he can be. It’s also enough for the viewers, at least, to see what a complete idiot he is. He’s full on “dumb jock” through and through. Even Lizzie seems embarrassed by him at a few points. The adjustments to his storyline also work very neatly, switching out an estate for a full ride to Harvard, money that Wickham blows through in one year before asking for more.

His affair with Gigi is also a nice twist, with them forming a relationship and living together until Darcy shows up unexpectedly and proves that Wickham was only in it for the money by offering him a check to leave, which he takes and does. It’s nearly as traumatic as the elopement would have been in the book, but it serves well enough. The only thing that is a bit of a sticking point is that, given the current culture, while it may be embarrassing for Gigi, it’s definitely not the kind of secret that should affect her at all if widely known. It could be easily told and sink Wickham, and I sincerely doubt anyone would think anything bad about the poor girl caught up in it all.

The sex tape with Lydia is far more effective as a stand-in for the life-long horror he intends to bring down on her. The internet is forever, and that kind of thing, once published is almost impossible to put back in a box. It would have followed Lydia forever. It’s a pretty basic practice for most employers to run Google searches on their prospective candidates, so it’s easy to see how this would have had real, tangible effects on her ability to lead a normal life. And, in the end, she gets off way easier than the Lydia in the book. Doesn’t have to have anything to do with Wickham ever again rather than ending up married to the guy.

Lastly, Caroline is the other main villain. I really liked this depiction of Caroline. She’s much more cool and calculated in her manipulation, even hoodwinking Lizzie about her true character. Some of the early videos of her are particularly interesting as the viewer can see Caroline actively fanning the flames of Lizzie’s dislike for Darcy while Lizzie is completely clueless to this manipulation. And then, ultimately, Caroline is the one behind much of the Bing/Jane drama. She arranges a situation at one of her parties to have some drunk guy kiss and unsuspecting Jane right when Darcy is watching. With this in mind, it’s easier to defend Darcy’s interference: he legitimately thought Jane was pulling his friend’s chain. Caroline, however, is the true evil mastermind behind it all.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

Yikes, the actual romance in this story is by far the most awkward thing in existence. The format of the show is never more working against itself than in these parts. I just felt super uncomfortable and voyeuristic watching the final kiss and conclusion to Lizzie and Darcy’s story. The build-up to this moment is fine, but the actual kiss itself…oof.

I wish there had been a way of introducing Darcy earlier in the series. The way the story is presented, this isn’t really possible, but once we can actually see the interactions between Lizzie and Darcy’s, it’s much easier to feel invested in their relationship. Really, if this wasn’t a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” which conditions viewers to put importance on the Lizzie/Darcy drama, much of the first half of the series would seem oddly focused on a character we never seem to meet. It makes Lizzie’s fixation and extreme dislike feel all the more strange. Sure, the enactments give us an idea of Darcy’s personality and the social interactions that put Lizzie off in the first place. But all of Lizzie’s enactments are clearly extremes of characters, so when you only have those to rely on for such an important character…It’s just hard to feel invested in any of it, without seeing their awkwardness together. But once he shows up, it’s much better. And it’s even better as we see them develop a tentative friendship with him even participating in some of her mini dramas.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Lydia is by far the funniest character in this series, especially in the first half of the show when she’s mostly just freely being herself , extremes and all. Once Lizzie starts pushing her to be more grown up and the Wickham drama comes in to play, it all gets a bit too serious almost. In the books what you loved about Lydia was also what you couldn’t stand about Lydia: nothing fazed her. Even in the face of social shaming and shunning, she never seemed to bat an eyelash about it and behaved the same way. Here, the story gets more much serious with how Lydia reacts to Lizzie’s perceptions of her, and even more so, the near miss she has with the sex tape.

But! In the beginning, she’s just hilarious. The actress brought a bunch of fun ticks to the character, with all of the hair flipping and camera poses. She also has a bunch of fun catchphrases, and it’s easy to see why she, of all the characters, ended up with some side videos in her own little series. I didn’t watch any of these for this re-watch, so I can’t speak to what those have to offer. But in a lot of ways her character is a breath of fresh air to the earnest and sweet Jane and the cynical Lizzie. She’s bouncy, bright, and ridiculous and brings new levity to all of her scenes.

I also really liked this version of Mr. Collins. While he is pretty ridiculous, he’s not nearly has intolerable as the character in the books. I really liked how he was always name dropping his VC (venture capitalist) Catherine DeBourgh. It was one example of the many perfect substitutions this series made for aspects of the book that wouldn’t work in a modern setting. Lizzie’s impressions of Catherine DeBourgh were also excellent, but only made me wish we could have actually seen the character on screen somehow!

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Kitty becomes Lydia’s cat, “Kitty” who follows her everywhere. Mary is a cousin whom most of them seem to regular forget exists.

The movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary” exists in this world as one of the sisters mentions that Darcy’s name is the same as “that character Colin Firth plays.” So, Colin Firth makes it into even this adaptation, if only in name. It seems that the book “Pride and Prejudice” does not exist, however.

Mrs. Bennet has several plans to get Jane stuck over at Netherfield. One includes sending her over with a jello that, due to the rain, is sure to ruin her dress and force her to stay. Mrs. Bennet also arranges for home improvements which force Jane and Lizzie to stay there for several weeks.

Pemberley is the name of William Darcy’s media business, and he mentions it is named after the part of England that his family is originally from.

Caroline Bingley will make a reappearance in “Emma Approved.”

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

The Mrs. Bennet impersonations were by far the best.

In two weeks, I’ll review the first half of “Emma.” Yes, I know this is out of order, but my quarantine brain read this one first and I didn’t want to do either it or “Mansfield Park” a disservice by speed reading the latter and then trying to review the former months after I actually read it. So, it is what it is!

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