“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view”: Adapting Middlemarch in the Information Age
In this post, Emily Bell (@EmilyJLB) interviews Rebecca Shoptaw (@rebecca_ish) about her web series of Middlemarch. The Dickens Project’s annual ‘Dickens Universe’ event will this year be focusing on Middlemarch instead of the usual Dickens novel, breaking with tradition for the first time in its thirty-seven years. Middlemarch: The Series comes at just the right time, then, to help us revisit George Eliot’s novel with new eyes. This Middlemarch is a modernized, gender-bent, vlog-style web series adaptation of Eliot’s novel that sets the story in the fictional town of Middlemarch, USA, home of Lowick College. Student documentary-maker Dorothea – or ‘Dot’ – compiles the footage that reveals the lives of her friends and fellow students over seventy episodes that provide snapshots of their lives; some funny, some moving.
Thanks again for agreeing to talk to the Dickens Society about the project. Could you tell us a bit about you?
I’m a rising senior at Yale, majoring in, shockingly enough, Film and Media Studies. I also tend to refer to myself as a ‘fake English major’ because almost all the classes I take for fun are English lectures or seminars. Also, while I eventually ended up deciding against adding a double-major in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, the intersections of gender/sexuality and media (film, novels, etc.) are still central to what I do academically and creatively.
I technically got my start making films when I was six or seven, though I think the word ‘film’ is a bit of a misnomer for the silly little movies I made with my friends back then. But I was lucky enough to take a phenomenal three-year film course at my high school, which made me start to take film seriously. I started making short films and posting them on YouTube in high school, but it wasn’t until I figured out my own sexuality at the end of high school and started making films that represented LGBTQ+ people that my work started reaching a wider audience.
As I saw the effect my films had on the people who watched them, I began to feel anew just how powerful and necessary LGBTQ+ representation could be, and it is this feeling that continues to motivate me to keep making short films about LGBTQ+ characters as often as I can.
So how did you decide to adapt Middlemarch specifically? Have you done anything like this before?
Ever since I became aware that the literary-inspired web series genre existed, I’d been considering doing some sort of vlog-style series of my own. I toyed with the idea of a few adaptations, but usually never got further than the initial stages of planning because I could never find source material that could be translated to tell LGBTQ+ stories without losing the original spirit of the work.
But then I found Middlemarch, and I pretty much fell in love. I think part of the reason I loved the novel so much was the way in which its central relationships (Will/Dorothea and Fred/Mary) refused to fall into the heavily gendered tropes of Victorian courtship. Unlike a number of authors we’d read that semester (such as Dickens and Hardy), Eliot really made it possible for me to read my own experiences into the text. This made the gender-bending of central characters effortless, which is, more than anything, what made the adaptation possible.
It’s striking that the diversity was the aspect that led you to Middlemarch, rather than vice versa, and it’s something that sets your web series apart from many of the other modernized adaptations of Victorian novels. What was it that ignited your interest in this kind of adaptation? Did you watch other nineteenth-century-inspired web series, like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?
I know a lot of web series creators start out in the literary web series fandom, but I was actually hardly aware that this fandom existed before I started working on Middlemarch. I watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries shortly after it finished airing, and then Carmilla and All For One during my freshman year of college, and I would definitely credit these series for showing me that it was possible to create a literary web series, and that these web series could be a great place for LGBTQ+ representation, but it would be difficult to call them influences for the series.
When I started planning and writing the series last summer, I wanted to get a clearer grasp of the confines and possibilities of the literary web series genre, so I watched almost every literary web series I could find. Through this process, I tried to determine what made a good series good, which choices worked well and which didn’t, and, more generally, how the genre worked. Of course, because I love a good story and there are so many incredible literary web series, I ended up falling in love with a number of the series I watched for research, especially Nothing Much To Do, Lovely Little Losers, Words From Wilde, Call Me Katie, and Away From It All.
So once you got that inspiration, what was the process of creating the series like? Have you worked with the actors to shape the characters, or did you have a clear idea of what you wanted them to be like going in?
I definitely had a clear sense of the characters going in. By the time I cast the series, I’d written and revised all seventy scripts, started a few of the transmedia accounts, designed character aesthetics to give actors for costuming, and spent so much time with these characters floating around my head that I sometimes felt like they were people I knew.
That said, much of who the characters were still came from the interaction of my visions for the character and the actors’ approach to playing them. My directing style is very internally focused, and usually involves telling actors how the character is feeling and/or what they’re thinking but leaving it up to the actors to figure out what that emotion ‘looks like.’ Because of this, while some characters ended up almost exactly how I imagined them, a number of characters shifted slightly from my original vision, and these shifts made so much sense that it’s hard for me now to remember how I originally imagined the characters.
One thing that you have handled so well in the series so far is adjusting the stakes for the college setting; i.e. turning Featherstone’s inheritance into an internship that Fred Vincy takes for granted that he’ll be given, having Casaubon as a graduate student, and having Bulstrode as a professor. Without giving too much away, can you talk a bit about what challenges you faced in adapting the storyline and how you negotiated those challenges?
I think that the question of how to adapt some of the larger plot points, like the Featherstone inheritance, Casaubon’s storyline, the debt plot and especially the codicil plot, is likely one of the main reasons that there hasn’t been any Middlemarch modernization before this one. Unlike the Austen novel plots whose intricate social dynamics work well in any time period, much of the plot of Middlemarch is undoubtedly Victorian.
I officially decided to adapt Middlemarch during a long car ride at the beginning of last summer, and it was through a conversation that lasted the last three or four hours of the drive that I began to work through how to carry these plot points over to the modern day without making the series feel any less like the novel. To make this possible, I used a strategy I called ‘adaptation by circumstance.’ Instead of taking an event from the novel and simply moving it to the modern day, such as giving Fred a rich, dying uncle, I turned my attention to the conversations and emotions that surrounded each major plot point, and tried to come up with a modern equivalent that could leave those emotions all but unchanged.
In each case, I started by analyzing what role the plot point served for the novel’s larger character arcs – what the plot point needed to accomplish. For example, one of my favorite plots in the novel is Fred’s disastrous horse-debt. For anyone who hasn’t read it, Fred begins the novel with a smallish debt he has accumulated from irresponsibly buying horses. In an attempt to pay off this debt, he has the brilliant idea to buy another horse and sell it for a profit. Unfortunately, this horse goes lame the day he buys it, and he’s left even more in debt than he started. Worse still, he had asked Mary Garth’s father to sign for him, so when the time comes and Fred can’t pay, Mary Garth’s family has to pay for him, which means that they can no longer afford to send their sons to school. While it would be easy to imagine a one-for-one adaptation of this – maybe something with cars? – I chose instead to adjust the stakes by distilling the plot to its most basic elements: Fred hilariously screws up, he screws up even more as he tries to fix his mistakes, the mess he makes somehow negatively impacts Mary/Max, who takes it as evidence of the larger issue of Fred’s carelessness and irresponsibility. It was from this reading of the plot that ‘Fred Vincy’s Spectacular Cooking Adventure’ was born.
I think the reason this adaptation strategy worked well for me and for Middlemarch was that George Eliot’s novel, Victorian as it is, is not really about debt or inheritance or the codicil plot. At its heart, Middlemarch is about its characters, and even in the modern day, those characters shine through.
In light of the focus on character, how important was it to you to capture Eliot’s tone and the structure of the novel also?
So important! Yet another reason that Middlemarch was difficult to adapt as a vlog-series was that so much of what makes the novel wonderful is Eliot’s brilliant narrator, and the way that she incorporates all of the intersecting stories into larger arguments about human nature. A Middlemarch film or BBC miniseries that simply films the conversations and plot points but eliminates the narrator can’t quite feel like Middlemarch.
Because of this, I was determined to find a way to incorporate that narrator into the series. Unfortunately, none of the characters are quite wise enough at the beginning of the series to express the narrator’s thoughts about human nature, so I had to figure out a different way to make these arguments come across.
This is actually why I chose to tell the series in retrospect. Even though it meant sacrificing a lot of the potential for transmedia and the fun of watching in ‘real time,’ telling the story in retrospect let me bring across the narrator’s arguments about human nature through the structure of the story. I realized as I was rereading the novel that many of Eliot’s narrator’s points come through parallels between the various stories, so I rearranged the plot to get these parallels into the same episode.
For instance, Episode 9 (‘Counting Chickens’) is made up of a number of moments from separate parts of the novel in which characters essentially count their chickens before they hatch. Similarly, Episode 15 (‘Inner Worlds’) sheds light on the tendency of characters to see what they want to see instead of what’s actually there by aligning the Dot-Casaubon and Rosy-Lydgate relationships.
This is one thing I love about modern adaptations. If you make a film of, say, Jane Austen’s Emma in which the time period and setting is the same, the characters all have the same names, and much of the dialogue is word-for-word from the novel, no one is going to doubt that what you have made is Emma. But if you want to, say, make a film of Emma reimagined in the 90’s in a high school in California, you have to figure out what the spirit of the novel is, what makes Emma Emma, and translate that essential Emma-ness into the modern day. Because modern adaptations can’t rely on surface similarity to the novel to be identifiable, they have the power to express the heart of the novel.
That’s something I’ve also found with first person novels like Great Expectations and Jane Eyre – as you say, something doesn’t quite feel right in filmic or television adaptations, when the idiosyncratic voice of the narrator is missing. Were there particular scenes or parts of the novel you found difficult to adapt, or were there some parts that worked particularly easily in this format?
Without spoiling too much, I think the most difficult part of the plot to adapt was the codicil plot. In my planning documents for the series, you can see me go through at least ten different iterations of what this plot could look like in the modern day until I finally have a kind of an epiphany and settle on the way to go. This was especially difficult because the plot is so central to the novel and yet also so related to death (which couldn’t work at the college level) and Victorian politics and culture. But as with many of the translations in the series, this plot may look very different from the codicil plot in the novel, but it should feel the same.
This isn’t a specific scene of the novel, but I think overall the easiest (and most fun) part to adapt was the novel’s dialogue. Once I found equivalents for all the plot points that made the same motivations and conversations possible, I got to essentially translate Eliot’s wonderful dialogue into more modern English, leaving much of it almost word-for-word. I think it’s a testament to the timelessness of Eliot’s writing that so many of her lines work unaltered in the modern day. (To see some of the specific text-to-series translations, you can check out the source text gif series on the Middlemarch Tumblr here.)
Something that makes this series truly stand out is its diversity, including gender-bending and involving a range of LGBTQ+ actors. How has this affected your approach to the story?
I talked a little about this earlier, but I think I was lucky enough in my choice of source material, and in the specific characters I chose to gender-bend or leave the same, that it really didn’t make much of a difference to the adaptation process. This is partly because I knew going in that I was going to gender-bend Will and Mary, so a modern Middlemarch to me was always an LGBTQ+ Middlemarch.
But I think that even though the original novel has no real representation in terms of LGBTQ+ characters, the three-dimensionality of the characters and the expansiveness of the story leave a certain space for that representation, which is sometimes all you need. When I introduced the series at its first-ever screening in March, I explained that, for me, this transformation was less about appropriating a classic text and reworking it to tell a radically different story, and more about reading back into a text the echoes of something that could have been there.
Do you have any plans to do future web series adaptations – or other forms of adaptation?
I knew going in that Middlemarch would definitely be my only foray into the world of the literary vlog-series, mostly because of the colossal amount of work that the series took to create. That said, adaptation has been and I’m sure will continue to be a central part of what I do. The fake English major in me loves literary interpretation, and for me adaptation combines the excitement of interpreting a text with the incredible process of storytelling through film. I’m an enthusiastic believer in the power of film as a medium to transform, to translate, to reimagine, to reinvent, and that is something I will absolutely continue to do.