Taking Classics into the 21st Century: Pemberley Digital's Modernized Adaptations of Classic Literature
by Rikki Roccanti
There is no easy way around teaching classic literature. We try to make it interesting – or at least as painless as possible. We try to fit the movie adaptation into our busy curriculum. We try to incorporate technology. We try to find YouTube videos that relate. In effect, we are trying to pull these classic texts into the 21st century. Good news. There are other people working on this as well, and they have done much of the hard work for us.
The name of our hard-working savior is Pemberley Digital (http://www.pemberleydigital.com), a web video production company that creates modernized adaptations of classic texts through the use of new media platforms. The company began this venture with their adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, which won an Emmy in the field of outstanding creative achievement in interactive media. The video series, produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su, envisions Lizzie Bennett as a vivacious, 24 year-old master's student creating a video dairy for a final project in a mass communications class. In addition to The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Pemberley Digital is currently producing Emma Approved, an adaptation of Austen's novel Emma. For their next project, which will begin in August, the company is teaming up with PBS and breaking-ground on non-Austen classic with the creation of Frankenstein, MD which will reimagine the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s novel as Victoria Frankenstein, a female physician obsessed with proving herself in the male dominated field of medicine.
As modernized adaptations, these video series reimagine many of the details of the classic novels but include the main characters and follow the same general plot. The details of the novel change because they are refashioned into a form that contemporary audiences would more readily understand and to which they could relate. For instance, Darcy's house, Pemberley, does not exist in The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. In the video series the significance of Pemberley is transferred to the company Darcy runs, Pemberley Digital (which the series' production company eventually adopted as its name). Houses were signifiers of wealth, status, and identity in Regency England, so the series producers translate what Austen was trying to signify through Darcy's house to a modern day signifier – a company run by Darcy – in order to retain a sense of meaning for a contemporary audience.
Not only does Pemberley Digital modernize the adaptations through contemporary signifiers, but they also pull Austen's classic novels into the twenty-first century through the use of transmedia storytelling practices which communicate elements of the story through new media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Linkedin, and Lookbook,. These venues serve to further immerse audiences in the story worlds of the adaptations as well as serve as interfaces which encourage audience participation through feedback as well as the collection, sharing, and discussion of story content. In the series Emma Approved, Emma Woodhouse is a matchmaker and lifestyle expert at Highbury Partners Lifestyle Group, and as such she uses her Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Tumblr pages to keep everyone tuned into her work life. For example, when Emma throws a bachelor’s auction as part of a benefit on human rights (the equivalent of the ball scene in Emma) Emma does not bring her video camera with her to the auction but @EmmaApproved tweeted about what was happening at the event to keep audiences engaged until the next video came out to recap the auction.
While these modernized, transmediated adaptations are of course entertaining on their own, they could also be easily incorporated into a middle or secondary English class teaching one of the classic novels. Each video is only around 4-7 minutes long which would make for a nice opening activity to transition students to talking about the novel. But the stories created by Pemberley Digital are not merely tools to distract students from the original novels or to keep their eyes from falling shut. These stories provide students with new ways to interact with old stories through the use of new media and participatory practices. These stories are providing students with new ways to “read” and engage with class literature. The stories can also open up interesting discussions about why the producers made the decisions they did in adapting the show. What have they changed and why? Does the story retain the same meanings? How are the producers using social media to add to the story? Not only can these stories serve as a means to analyze the classic novels, but their transmedia characteristics create gaps which encourage further expansion. For instance, students could create their own v-logs telling the story from another character’s point of view or from a scene (like the dance in Emma) that was discussed but not shown.
However you use these stories in your classroom, Pemberley Digital can attest to the fact that classic literature still intrigues and delights us. And it continues to inspire us. It inspires us to create our own stories out of the woodwork of timeless texts. And it inspires us to find new ways to keep the story timeless by utilizing the tools of 21st century storytelling to reach a new generation of young adults.
By Kathy Garland
When I taught high-school English, I remember creating a project that required students to locate, interpret and analyze popular music. The example that I gave them included music centered on line dances. You know songs like, Electric Boogie (Slide) (1989) or Boot Scootin Boogie (1992)? Together, we listened in class and read the lyrics. And then, we interpreted and analyzed these songs and words in terms of literary devices and patterns. I challenged them to find their own appropriate popular songs so that they could do the same. Sounds like fun, right?
However, that was before Ty Dolla Sign, Nicki Minaj or Two Chainz! Music has changed, but students are still listening. So what’s a language arts teacher to do in the 21st Century?
Here are some suggestions based on your level of popular song knowledge:
1. You are familiar with popular songs. Use the clean version.
If you’ve recently listened to any popular songs, then you might have noticed that there are two major subjects: sex and drugs. Therefore, using the clean version might be helpful. However, I would only suggest this if you are familiar with either the artist, or the lyrics. For example, one language arts teacher I spoke with once began class by rapping the words from Gorilla Zoe’s Hood Figga (2007), a very explicit song. He used the song to better explain the characteristics of American Romanticism. He was well established in his career, familiar with hip-hop and rap culture, and knew his students, school and district, so this lesson worked out well for him.
2. You know some popular songs from the last ten years. Integrate one song that supports the curriculum.
Find that one song you really like that will not make you look as if you haven’t watched videos in decades. Locate similarities between that song and another mandated curricular text. I recently interviewed a senior, high-school teacher who guided students through a comparison of Beyoncé’s, If I Were a Boy (2008) to Judy Brady’s Why I Want a Wife (1972). According to her, students were surprised by the similarity in theme even though the mediums are different and the writers are decades apart. Imagine the other possibilities for this culturally relevant method for teaching.
3. You know zero popular songs. Consider flexible assignments.
Are your students writing? If so, then ask them to list ten popular songs that they might be listening to. Perhaps follow-up questions might encourage them to give supporting details for their songs’ similarities, or maybe ask students to provide rationales for listening to this type of music. In addition to learning about what your students find important, they will also practice using literacy practices deemed important for academics. This brief question might later turn into a writing assignment where they defend today’s popular music.
YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, I Heart Radio, the list is endless for how our students are currently listening to music. These 21st century tools have made popular music more accessible. And as language arts educators, we should be mindful of how students are processing the texts of their lives. Any of these suggestions can be extended to teach about specific artists and their word choices; likewise, these activities can be used as methods for supporting students as they examine their own sociocultural worlds that are oftentimes rooted in popular music.
How do you currently use music in your secondary language arts class? Feel free to comment with your recommendations as these might be useful for someone looking for a fresh start to a new year.
Brady, J. (1971). Why I want a wife. The Bedford Reader. XJ Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy.
Beyoncé. (2008). If I were a boy. On I am…Sasha Fierce. [CD]. Columbia.
Brooks & Dunn. (1992). Boot scootin boogie. On Brand New Man. [CD]. Arista.
Gorilla Zoe. (2007). Hood figga. On Welcome to the Zoo. [CD]. Bad Boy/South Block Entertainment.
Griffiths, M. (1989). Electric boogie. On Carousel. [CD].