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Classic novels ingrained in Western culture have been adapted in many ways over years – plays, musicals, miniseries, films, modern teen novels, even text posts (no, really). In recent years, with the success of Game of Thrones, we’re seeing more and more books and series adapted to television format.

But one of my favorite methods of adaptation is one rarely discussed outside of internet culture: the literary web series.

These modern retellings of public domain works turn classic protagonists into Youtube vloggers, who let their story unfold before an audience. Literary web series have to be particularly inventive in bringing classic stories to modern day, organically integrating racial & gender diversity and modern sensibilities to works made over a hundred years ago.

Breaking down the structure of these series, there are five components to an effective adaptation:


  1. Initial conceit (or, why does this character have a blog?)
  2. Audience acknowledgement & interaction
  3. How are other perspectives integrated?
  4. Inventiveness (with camera stuff, settings, etc.)
  5. Quality of Adaptation (modernization of problematic elements, captured the spirit of the original)
Let’s look at some examples to see how this breaks down.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, 2012-2013

(Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, 1813)

Pretty straightforward – Lizzie Bennet is a grad student in Communications doing this as her project, presenting her views in contrast to her mother’s. What starts out as documenting Lizzie’s opinions ends up getting involved in a whole lot of drama.

Audience acknowledgement & interaction
High acknowledgement and interaction. Lizzie’s videos are very public and very popular in-universe. The story even takes from the audience quite a bit, responding to the multiple requests for Darcy, and even affecting the self-esteem of Lydia. Acknowledges the problems of putting your life and the lives of those around you on the internet, but how communicating with strangers can help to communicate with people closer to you.

Are other perspectives integrated?
Other characters take over Lizzie’s vlog or have their own side vlogs, and show the holes in Lizzie’s sometimes biased logic.

This was pretty much the first well-known literary web series, so launching the whole art form definitely counts! Also, two words: costume theater.

Quality of Adaptation
Lizzie Bennet Diaries,
 rather than being a straight point-by-point adaptation, streamlined the events to make sense for modern day – house parties become weddings and pub visits, estates become companies, problems with inheritance laws become problems with student debt and bad economy. Characters barely sketched out in the original text are fleshed out, and Lizzie herself is not only the modern Elizabeth, but the voice of self-exploring 20-somethings everywhere.

But my favorite method of adaptation was the new life injected into main themes of pride and prejudice. When the original book came out, the audience would have been surprised to discover, along with Elizabeth, the hidden depths of Darcy.

200 years later, when “Where is my Darcy?” is the common phrase among Austenites, no one is surprised Darcy is better than he seems. So, Pemberley Digital brought back the element of surprise by making Lydia Bennet, an irresponsible flake in the original book, the one truly misunderstood by Lizzie (though dear Darcy still plays an important role).

The only thing maybe lost in adaptation is the fact that, in the original book, Lizzie was more right than wrong, whereas in the web series, she seems more wrong than right. Additionally, Lizzie’s confrontation with Caroline Lee near the end of the series, meant to mirror the one with Lady Catherine De Bourgh, loses its power since Caroline doesn’t have nearly as much power over Lizzie. Lizzie standing up to her is not as big a deal.

Note: I highly recommend the companion novel The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, as it fills in some elements of the story that couldn’t be put on screen.

Emma Approved, 2013-2014

(Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma1815)

Emma Woodhouse is documenting her greatness in lifestyle excellence as head of the consulting firm Emma Approved. 
Eh…it does fall in line with the character, but some see it as over-the-top.

Audience acknowledgement & interaction
Emma’s videos, except for the Q&As, are private. But she has cameras on the desks of everyone who works there (to the consternation of some of them). I think this is where a lot of fans got lost, because the audience didn’t affect the story the way it did before.

Harriet’s music videos are a little more interactive, but not part of the main storyline. 

Are other perspectives integrated?
Swiveling to other people’s desk cameras helps. Also, Harriet has a music blog which often reflects her mood and her growing confidence in herself.

Month-long arcs of consulting clients in an office setting. More space, multiple rooms, in-universe charities made real.

Quality of Adaptation
I love the way the characters were adapted, on one hand.
The themes of appearance vs. true character are even more apparent in a web series format, where often charisma rules the day. Emma starts out ingratiating, but we really root for her by the end. Knightly is as lovely as ever, but now with more of a sense of humor (also helps that he’s not above Emma in station this time around). Harriet no longer stands in Emma’s shadow and grows beyond a project to a true friend.

The supporting characters are all well-sketched and memorable, with the addition of LBD’s Caroline Lee as the infamous Mrs. Elton an incredible twist. The resolutions of the main pairings (Emma/Knightley and Harriet/B-Mart) were extremely satisfying, almost more so than the ones in LBD!

But the adaptation of the story felt choppy. The month-long arcs of Emma counseling a client weren’t quite organic, and didn’t quite fall in line with the format of the original book. And by keeping the action confined to the offices, it’s argued that an important element of the story  – mainly Emma’s interactions with her neighbors and her father – is lost. So, as an adaptation, it may not be the strongest. Still, it’s an enjoyable, inventive twist on a classic.

Autobiography of Jane Eyre, 2013-2014

(Adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre1847)

Jane Eyre is a nursing graduate embarking on a new chapter in her life, and wants to be brave like Lizzie. Though Jane narrates her own story in the original book as well, she’s a shy character who might seem unlikely to put herself on display on the internet. But once she gets going it becomes a great form of self-expression for her (the original Jane was an artist, updated to a photographer).

Audience acknowledgement & interaction
Jane’s videos are public, and she does do Q&As, but the audience doesn’t affect the story more than that. However, Jane does acknowledge that her audience might serve as witness to the weirdness going on, proving she isn’t crazy (and possibly account for her whereabouts if she turns up dead! Ah, gothic novels.)

Are other perspectives integrated?
Sometimes other people find the camera, or don’t realize that Jane left her camera on somewhere. Mostly, however, this is Jane’s story, and she tells it well.

Outdoor shots, not afraid to get downright creepy, meta-commentary episode of Mary Rivers watching all of Jane’s videos.

Quality of Adaptation
Jane Eyre is a pretty weird novel, by modern standards, and a problematic one, what with its shortsighted treatment of race, mental illness (the half-Creole Mason family hinted as being somewhat crude and prone to mental illness), and culture (Adele and her mother are put down for being French), and its arguably unhealthy relationships (since Rochester is kind of a jerk who has slept with a lot of women, and St. John is… well… Jane’s cousin). 
So I’m glad a lot of this is either removed or approached with more sensitivity, while preserving much of the darkness of the original novel.

However, the adaptation does lose the supernatural element that makes the original a gothic novel. Also, since Jane isn’t facing nearly as steep of odds in terms of her class and gender, she’s as a result a softer character.
But she is nonetheless strong and principled in the face of going it alone, and her story of finding a place and people to belong to is just as fulfilling as the original.Though the ending may feel rushed due to circumstances beyond the show’s control, overall it’s a strong modern adaptation.

The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, 2014-2016

(Adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, and 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy)

Note: This only covers Seasons 1-2, as I haven’t gotten around to Season 3 yet.

In the town of Neverland, Ohio, 27-year-old Wendy Darling runs an advice blog through her family’s paper, the Kensington Chronicle, which also captures the lives of her brothers, John and Michael, her vitriolic female friend Lily Bagha, and her best friend (who wants the be more-than-a-friend), Peter Pan.

The blog fits with Wendy’s motherly personality from the original story, but realistically doesn’t show all the action happening in front of Wendy’s camera.Not-as-realistically, the rest of the action occurs from Tinkerbell’s perspective, but it is so brilliantly done that it seems like fairies should have been included in a web series ages ago!

Audience acknowledgement & interaction
On Wendy’s vlogs, Wendy does talk to the audience and answers questions, though I think most are fabricated to move the plot along.
During the fairy-cam moments, no acknowledgement of audience directly, but the businesses and characters created by audience members on the Neverland Twitter registrar are sometimes referenced (and on that note, the P + W social media platforms interact a LOT with their audience). 

Are other perspectives integrated?
The fairy-cam gives the audience more movement and perspectives than Wendy’s vlog alone would allow, and each character gets their day in the sun, so kudos to P + W for that! Season 2 also adds cameras in Wendy’s office at JhMedia (similar to Emma Approved) and Peter’s playacting videos, splitting the narrative between the small town and the big city in interesting parallel ways.

The fairy-cam, and inclusion of magic in a web series in general (though it doesn’t really effect the plot). Also, surprisingly might be the most lewd of the shows reviewed so far, due to veiled references to smoking pot and “magic” brownies.

Quality of Adaptation
 New Peter + Wendy is by no means a faithful adaptation of the beloved novel in terms of plot. And really, how could it be? By choosing a fantasy over a comedy of manners/period piece, the creators faced a particularly huge challenge in adaptation.

The basic tenants are there – Wendy being too old to stay where she is, escapes with Peter, but realizes she has to grow up and leave Neverland, leaving Peter behind by his own choice. But other than that, the adaptation basically takes the original characters, fleshes them out as modern 20-year-olds, and uses them and Neverland as a launch point for a rumination of what it means to grow up – or not – in the 2010s. This is highlighted even more by depicting the Neverland gang and the pirates/executives of JHMedia as contemporaries. Adulthood, here, is not about age but about attitude.

The characterizations are spot on, the plot both whimsical and deeply thought provoking, and the magic of the original is still retained in surprising ways. They even made sure Hook went by “Jas” rather than “James,” a facet of the original story lost in time.

Changing Tiger Lily, a stereotyped Native American character, into a complex woman of actual Indian descent, sacrifices the problematic element of the character without whitewashing, which the reviled prequel Pan got flack for. In a major departure, the web series also explores sexuality more in depth. (If you’d told me John Darling and Smee could be an adorable pairing before this series, I’d have called you crazy. But there you go.)

Wendy’s character, however, strays from the original in that she is allowed to be more flawed. The original Wendy was meant to be an argument in favor of women’s suffrage by depicting a female character as more sensible and responsible than the male characters. While modern Wendy is still the most responsible of her friends, she is also zany, ambitious, and sometimes even cruel, making some questionable decisions the original Wendy might not have made. Her character arc reminds me a bit of Peter Banning’s in Hook as she tries to find balance between childhood and adulthood.

I can’t say whether it was effective or not without seeing Season 3, but I love that the writers are tackling those themes.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a single element that makes an adaptation a good one. But if I had to take a stab, I think it is heart, humor, and sincerity in the characters, plus a relatable plot dealing with changes and new beginnings, that most draws people to a series, and all the ones above definitely managed to capture that! 

For more literary web series, check out this comprehensive list. My recommendations: Misselthwaite Archives, From Mansfield with Love, Northbound, The Cate Morland Chronicles, Edgar Allen Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party/Gala for Friends Potluck (aka Poe Party).

So, what do you think? Do you think these web series capture the best of the books they’re based on? Got any other examples you want to talk about? 

“You were unaware? Then why don’t you watch my videos?” “…What videos?” (or, when you accidentally reveal your vlog to the wrong person)