The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: LOL FTW

lizzie bennet diaries logo

My name is Obstinate Headstrong Girl, and this is my review of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

I’ve written in the past how I do not understand why a movie or miniseries calls itself Pride and Prejudice then proceeds to veer away from the words, situations, and intrinsic characterizations of P&P.  To me that means you based the movie on the novel P&P, you did not recreate it for the screen.  No worries here – The Lizzie Bennet Diaries does not claim to be P&P.  Welcome to the world of the variation.

As we move into the realm of the adaptation by variation I have only one caveat: please stay true to the foundation laid down by the book.  Invent new situations for the Bennets and Bingleys, tell me what comes next for Elizabeth and Darcy, and even conjecture a ‘what if’ scenario that eliminates parts of the storyline from the book.  I only ask that you don’t turn stray too far from the original characterizations.  I love it when authors take what Jane Austen wrote and build on it rather than merely taking the names of her characters and creating whole new personalities and personages.  Take Elizabeth and Darcy on a time-traveling sea voyage to China if you dare; please do not switch Elizabeth’s personality with Caroline Bingley’s nor have her become the female Jack the Ripper of Meryton.  Anyway…on to the Diaries.

The most famous first line in fiction becomes a t-shirt depicting a mother's desperate wish for her perpetually single daughter.

The most famous first line in fiction becomes a t-shirt epitomizing a mother’s desperate wish for her perpetually single daughter.

I’ll come down off my soapbox and once again say I thoroughly enjoyed The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, or LBD.  Created by Hank Green and Bernie Su, LBD is an online variation of Pride and Prejudice that features three to five minute ‘webisodes’ offering up vignettes of specific events in the life of Lizzie Bennet, a 24-year-old mass communications grad student who still lives at home with her parents and two sisters.  The creative minds behind LBD branched from the YouTube videos to also have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  One can actually get tweets and status updates from their favorite characters, and see their posted pictures.  The characters moved from the fictional world of the written page to the surreal world of the internet.  Marketing genius.

lbd character collage

Pride and Prejudice characters through the incarnations (1995, 2005, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries 2012-13)

The P&P story has been brought into the 21st century: Jane is really sweet and underemployed in the fashion industry; Lizzie is a “perpetually single” professional student who is more than ready to graduate and get out; Lydia is a young collegian/barfly/party girl (Ly-dee-yah…whaaaat?!).  Most of the major characters are here, although the Bennet family shrank by two daughters.  Kitty is now a real kitty, as in cat, and Mary has been demoted to the cousin that Lizzie keeps forgetting.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh is referred to, of course constantly by Mr. Collins, as the venture capitalist funding his media firm, Collins and Collins.  The secondary characters, such as the Lucases and Gardiners (now a single person in the form of Lizzie’s advisor), are mentioned in passing then promptly forgotten.  The principal characters instead are now Lizzie, Jane, Lydia, and Charlotte.  These four alternately relate what happened in Lizzie’s life earlier that day or the previous night, or speculate on what will happen later.  For storyline continuity, until the other characters make appearances, or when the action takes place off camera, the viewer is treated to Lizzie’s ‘costume theatre,’ which is one of the best ideas of LBD.  When Lizzie dons a shawl and huge flowered hat and drawls like the best southern belle at the Kentucky Derby, truly Mrs. Bennet has been brought to life in all her scheming yet flighty glory.  “Mah Lizzie is quite the straaange one.  All that readin’ and writin’ and studyin’.”  Lizzie deems her mother a member of the “2.5 WPF Club,” meaning 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, the subject Lizzie’s mom harps on 24/7.  Someone, surely someone must be in want of Lizzie as their wife!

Lizzie Bennet as Mrs. Bennet; Charlotte Lu as Mr. Bennet

Diverting costume theatre with Lizzie Bennet as Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte Lu as Mr. Bennet

I could further tell you that military man Col. Fitzwilliam is now the hip and awesome-haired Fitz Williams, Mr. Collins the cleric is now Mr. Collins (not Ricky, if you please!) the would-be video game and digital media mogul, and Wickham is an assistant swim coach who threatens to release an oh-so-21st-century sex tape of Lydia as his means of extortion.  The Darcy estate in Derbyshire is now a silicon valley skyscraper known as Pemberley Digital.  Without further explaining how the storyline of P&P becomes the diaries – there are 100 webisodes, after all – let me just say that it translates well and it works, even if you’re not in the target demographic of 16-26 years of age.  The Austen-angst is still there.  Lizzie and Darcy still meet poorly and painfully, at a wedding this time, where he utters the disparaging comment that Lizzie is “decent enough” (off camera, recounted in the hilarious costume theatre, episode 7).  They still miscommunicate and fail to communicate throughout the series.  Jane and Bing Lee (Get it? Bing Lee?!) still meet and and bat eyes then separate then reunite.  Caroline schemes against everyone.  Mr. Collins remains loquacious and just plain weird.  Lydia and Wickham behave badly.  The most beloved aspects of the story remain faithful to Austen even if the situations (college deadlines, medical school, digital media, Las Vegas and Los Angeles trips, etc.) are very much present day.  If you want to know what happens…I highly recommend watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Unlike the novel, however, the Bennet girls do not all marry and live happily ever after.  Jane and Lizzie both get their men, but in very post-feminist ways by staying single and keeping their last names.  Ly-dee-yah wises up and grows up in a nod to the camp that wished Austen-Lydia would have done so at the end of P&P.  Wickham and Caroline just slink fade away.  But it all just works.

This is all the Darcy we get?  C'mon! (episode 59)

This is all the Darcy we get? And after we waited for fifty-eight episodes?! C’mon! (episode 59)

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries definitely give you Lizzie Bennet’s unvarnished opinion on all matters in her life.  We see her good and bad moments.  We see her reactions to events and her actions to live her life.  We see the reactions of her friends when they hear about her web diary and go watch the back episodes (I love it when Darcy pouts to Lizzie: “You called me a robot, and a newsie” in episode 61).  I do think LBD has a little too much Lydia and possibly even Jane, and too little Darcy for my taste (we hear about him in episode 6, “Snobby Mr. Douchey” but do not actually see him until episode 59, from the neck down; his face appears in episode 60).  We viewers get second-hand recountings of all the Lizzie/Darcy interactions at Netherfield, missing all the wonderful first-hand barb-trading and sly glances.  It took waiting until episode 98 for the reconciliation.  Really, can there ever be too much Darcy?

You are too generous to trifle with me...My affections and wishes are unchanged...version 2013.

You are too generous to trifle with me…My affections and wishes are unchanged…version 2013.

So, if you have the attention span of a gnat that can watch three to five minute web diary episodes and can tolerate a very modern variation of the Jane Austen classic, I highly recommend The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  FWIW, IMO.

The characters of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

The characters of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

March – Make Haste and Watch Both Television Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (1980 & 1995)

boys are better in books

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that boys are just better in books.  Period.  Add to that, boys in Jane Austen books are just better.  Period.  As I talked about in February, moving Pride and Prejudice from book to screen was a good thing, although some scenes were a bit loosey-goosey and muddled in translation.  However, the opportunity to see Fitzwilliam Darcy come to life on the screen will always capture my attention, so I turn from the movies of last month to the television adaptions for this month’s challenge.  Specifically I wondered if the television versions of Pride and Prejudice from 1980 and 1995 represented the book well, and was one better than the other?  Secretly I searched for the answer to the elusive question: who were the better Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy?

I’ll tackle the 1995 A&E adaptation first because it is obviously the better-known.  For many, Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are Lizzie and Darcy, and for the most part, I agree.  Jennifer Ehle evinced the facial expressions and droll delivery that I always pictured for Elizabeth.  She also walked the fine line between being spirited without overreaching.  She portrayed Elizabeth’s poise (when nursing Jane at Netherfield), naivete (when being charmed and flattered by Wickham), temper (when turning down Darcy’s first proposal), and wit and intelligence (when conversing with Lady Catherine and Col. Fitzwilliam at Rosings).  Most striking for me was Ehle’s “fine eyes,” the much remarked upon feature of Elizabeth that the actress brought to life as almost a second character.  With the cut of a glance, a raising of the brow, or a widening of her eyes, Ehle drew attention time and again to Elizabeth’s supposed most striking feature.  I have heard the 1995 Elizabeth Bennet characterized as too feisty but any reader of the original would be hard pressed to deny that Lizzie was exactly that, and Ehle brought that vivacity and expressiveness to the small screen very effectively.

It is a truth universally acknowledged...

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

Mr. Darcy, aka Colin Firth (insert sigh here).  What more need be said?  Surprisingly, plenty, in my opinion.  I always pictured Mr. Darcy as aloof and arrogant – prideful – but all with a foundation built from discomfort: he is a man of many responsibilities thrust on him through the death of his father, and that seriousness weighs heavily on him, so why would he be comfortable at dances, afternoon teas, and society functions?  Life became very real to him and compared to others his age he is more serious, which translates as pompous.  Firth’s portrayal seems to lack the backstory for the apparent distance, leaving Darcy a more one-sided character of simple superiority just waiting to be set down and reformed by Elizabeth.  The common criticism that Firth is too often wet (the bath at Netherfield, sweaty from fencing, swimming in ponds) is easily written off with a hastily uttered “who cares?” (again, insert sigh here), but I will agree that it was unnecessary editorializing.  We know Darcy is thinking of Elizabeth from his surreptitious glances and smoldering looks; if the director felt the audience needed to see his lead actor plastered with a wet shirt in an attempt to purge his lusty Lizzie thoughts, who am I to argue with the creative muse?

I watched the 1980 BBC adaptation for the first time ever this month, and fifteen minutes into it I was not impressed.  The lighting was strange – more like a stage than screen – the segues between scenes were nonexistent, and the actors looked decidedly 1970s dressed up like 1790s.  I pressed paused and rethought my focus for this month’s challenge entry but quickly brought myself back to task: think less about staging and more about adaptation.  Thus focused, I watched all five episodes with barely a bathroom break in the middle.  What hooked me was David Rintoul’s portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy.

"He soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien.”

“He soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien.”

Darcy looked uncomfortable and ill at ease from his first appearance onscreen at the Meryton Assembly and then later at the dinner at Lucas Lodge, just as I had always pictured he would.  Darcy’s famous disparagement of Elizabeth at the assembly even sounded more like a “leave me alone” to Bingley than a purposeful cut to Elizabeth.  Each scene with Elizabeth brought the cool mask to Darcy’s features that could be misinterpreted as pride, although without a look of smugness or superiority.  He was dour with a hint of sadness, that somewhat helpless puppy look that makes you want to scoop him up and promise to take good care of him and Pemberley.  At the end, however, when love is confessed between our leads, the transformation on Rintoul’s face is perfection.  He has confirmation of Elizabeth’s love and he looks every bit the ardent and admiring gentleman we know him to be.  Bewitched body and soul, indeed!

Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet was good, and would have ranked much better with me if I did not immediately compare her to Jennifer Ehle’s portrayal.  This Elizabeth was a little too quiet and docile for me; her character seemed to be one of the ensemble rather than the lead.  Elizabeth needed more spark, more life – more Lizzie!  I confess I did not care for the too-frequent narration from Elizabeth to give us insight into her feelings.  I felt like someone was reading the book to me then stopping to explain what they read.  I understand why it was used, in effort to explain why and where the pride and prejudice had occurred during the course of the story, but was just unnecessary and tiresome after a bit.

So, what of the rest of the cast of characters and the adaptations as a whole?  And which one wins?

Pride and Prejudice (1995) made me fall in love with Colin Firth.  Pride and Prejudice (1980) reminded me why I fell in love with Mr. Darcy.

Pride and Prejudice (1995) was a triumph of casting with the superb Jennifer Ehle embodying Elizabeth Bennet, the perfectly obsequious David Bamber as Mr. Collins, and the spot-on ridiculously flighty Julia Sawalha as Lydia Bennet.  Adrian Lukis brought the right amount of charm and smarm (shudder) to George Wickham.  And I cannot mention “fine eyes” without remarking on those of Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh: slightly buggy, narrowing and widening with every other remark she let zing.  Mr. Hurst could also be relied upon for a well-timed belch or stirring to require more spirits for some comic relief as well.

Other strengths of the 1995 adaptation were its pace and scene selections.  Few “integral” scenes from the novel were omitted, and certainly none that altered the flow of the story.  I could have done without the occasional disembodied heads of Darcy and Elizabeth floating in each others mirrors and windows as the effect was a little bit cheesy, but it didn’t ruin the continuity.  Despite being nearly six hours in length, the series flowed and never lagged.

Pride and Prejudice (1980) was a triumph of casting David Rintoul as Fitzwilliam Darcy.  It was also a triumph of putting all the main scenes from a novel on the screen in chronological order, omitting very little from said novel.  Several things were altered, however, and that did wear on me after a while.  As mentioned before, Elizabeth’s near-constant scene narration was just unnecessary, and I think Mrs. Bennet was given far too much sense in this adaptation.  This was very much an ensemble miniseries, and I think that led to watering down Elizabeth’s character too much while elevating others, especially her mother and sisters.  Kitty and Lydia are still immature but they draw far less indelicate attention to themselves when in company.  Mr. Bennet also seems to vacillate between being harsh and even verbally cruel at times before reverting again to indifference toward his family.  This adaptation seemed to be one of skimming the cream off the top and serving it rather than letting us have the milk and butter as well.  Don’t give us too much and not enough to offend.

I complained about it in my review of the movies last month and I’ll complain about it again in my review of the television adaptations: why must something be added to a story when brought from novel to screen?  I can understand when things are omitted, for time, casting, and staging constraints, but why make something up that was not in the original?  Have Darcy jump in a pond (1995) or have Elizabeth explain chapters 31-33 by narrating as she stares out her bedroom window (1980) – not a big deal, although unnecessary.  But don’t turn Lady Catherine into a Georgian Martha Stewart spouting off household tips in nearly all her scenes (1980), or Mrs. Gardiner into “Dear Abby” (1980).  It’s just a pet peeve of mine.  Adapt, but please don’t rewrite.

Pride and Prejudice 1995

Pride and Prejudice 1995

So my winner is…A&E’s Pride and Prejudice (1995)…hands down.  To quote Mr. Darcy, “”I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”