After the success of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” it seems like every classic novel is destined to become an interactive vlog-style web series. It’s a cool trend that has sparked an online community of literary filmmakers and inspired lots of viewers to reconnect with the books.
But with so many adaptations out there, the format risks getting tired. You can only see so many dramatic plot twists conveniently happen on someone’s public YouTube channel or Twitter account before you start asking, “Why are you broadcasting everyone’s personal problems on the internet and how are you not getting sued? Also, don’t you ever go outside?” For new shows to catch on these days, creators need to figure out how to push the boundaries while sticking to a tight budget.
One series that’s been doing a good job so far is “The Misselthwaite Archives,” an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden created by Pencil Ink Productions. Showrunner Aileen Sheedy explains, “I had been a huge fan of ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,’ ‘The Autobiography of Jane Eyre,’ ‘The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy‘ and a whole bunch of the other literary web series adaptations, and so I really wanted to do one.”
The cleverly-updated story turns spoiled, sickly orphan Mary Lennox into a sullen cigarette-smoking teenager, while the walled English garden becomes a glade in the woods of Oregon that’s been damaged by pollution and climate change. The dialog is snarky and entertaining, and Sophie Giberson strikes the right balance between obnoxious and vulnerable in her portrayal of Mary.
More importantly, the producers have found a way to broaden the “interactive vlog” format so they can film moments that a vlogger would never be able to capture. Some episodes have Mary in her bedroom talking to the camera — private messages to her therapist and videos for school assignments — while others are on-location episodes that follow Mary as she annoys her caretakers, explores the forest and befriends a cat named Robin.
The social media storytelling has also been updated from the “Lizzie Bennet” model. While you can’t talk directly to Mary on Twitter or follow her on Facebook, you can dig through an extensive multimedia archive about her life. Text messages, photographs, Facebook posts, voicemails, emails and newspaper clippings flesh out the characters’ backstories and give a nice sense of realism, while avoiding the “why/how is this on the internet” issue that has plagued other adaptations. Pencil Ink Productions also took inspiration from Yulin Kuang’s “Kissing in the Rain” series by inviting viewers to submit fan fiction, music playlists and other material, some of which are integrated into the official story.
Overall it’s a smart, enjoyable show, and a good example of how literary web series can evolve. If you’re a fan of the genre or just love The Secret Garden, you should definitely check it out.
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