YouTube Series Turn Classic Literature Into Modern Video Blogs

By Jordan Moeny — January 15, 2015 2 min read
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A recent trend in online storytelling may offer opportunities for teachers looking to help connect students to literature: Literary YouTube series seek to transform classic works into video blogs set in the modern day.

One of the earliest such series is also one of the most popular: “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice co-created by Hank Green, himself a YouTube celebrity and brother of beloved young-adult author John Green. In this modernized version of the story, Elizabeth Bennet is a 24-year-old grad student with a video blog, and the Bennet sisters—reduced to three, rather than the original five—are just as concerned about jobs and school as they are about marriage.

“The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” went on to become the first YouTube series to win a Primetime Emmy, and the team behind it was rebranded as Pemberley Digital. In the two years since The Lizzie Bennet Diaries finished its run, Pemberley has adapted two more Austen works to the vlog format, creating a miniseries based on the unfinished novel Sanditon and a longer series, “Emma Approved,” which turns the title character of Emma into a headstrong lifestyle coach living in California.

Pemberley also teamed up with PBS to create a 22-episode series called “Frankenstein, M.D.,” which teaches viewers about biology while following the exploits of Victoria Frankenstein, a medical student struggling to make a name for herself in a male-dominated field.

Though Pemberley Digital has created the best-known of these video series, it’s certainly not alone in the genre. “Nothing Much to Do” sets Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in a New Zealand high school, while “Classic Alice” tells the story of a college student who decides to live her life according to classic novels. “The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy” re-imagines Peter Pan as a comic book artist in Neverland, Ohio. The newest addition to the field is “The March Family Letters,” an adaptation of Little Women created by Cherrydale Productions and distributed by Pemberley Digital.

One defining feature of many of these series is the way they spill over into other forms of media. Characters interact with each other on Twitter, reblog fan posts on Tumblr, and share fashion ideas on Pinterest. “Classic Alice” goes even further, with the characters creating podcasts and giving their phone numbers to the audience. While all of the series can be fully understood and enjoyed on YouTube alone, the additional opportunities to interact with the story can be a major draw for plugged-in teenage fans.

Teacher Melanie Carbine suggests that episodes—typically no longer than five minutes—could be used for warm-ups or as a way of supplementing more traditional lessons about classic novels, or that students could create their own videos based on the novels read in class.

Annamarie Carlson of Rollins College even wrote an honors program thesis arguing that “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” could be used as a way to pique students’ interest in the original book, a possible solution to a problem faced by countless English teachers: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that high school students hate reading Jane Austen.” But they do tend to like YouTube.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.