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“Middlemarch” Gets Winningly Adapted as a Web Series

“Middlemarch,” by George Eliot, has largely been immune to the kind of contemporary adaptation visited upon the works of other nineteenth-century writers. The novelist Kay Woodward has turned Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” into a chapter book for tweens called “Jane Airhead,” and Jane Austen’s works have been endlessly updated, from “Bridget Jones’s Diary” to “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” a Web series that won an Emmy, four years ago, for translating Austen’s novel into the form of a vlog.

But why never “Middlemarch”? Why has the novel proved largely resistant to such reimagining? There is, to be sure, a history of accomplished novelists slipping references to Eliot’s masterwork into their own fictions, using a character’s relation to the novel as an indicator of his or her moral development, while also offering a sly allusion to the literary company that the novelist in question wishes to keep. In Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” Newland Archer receives a box of books sent from England, including “a novel called ‘Middlemarch,’ as to which there had lately been interesting things said in the reviews.” (He tries to read it but finds himself distracted from the story of English provincial life by wondering about the cosmopolitan background of the Countess Olenska.) In “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf uses Eliot’s novel to convey the social and intellectual anxiety experienced by Minta Doyle, one of the Ramsays’ houseguests, who is afraid of Mr. Ramsay’s literary dinner-table conversation, “for she had left the third volume of ‘Middlemarch’ in the train and she never knew what happened in the end.” (Ultimately, she resolves her social awkwardness by pretending to be “even more ignorant than she was, because he liked telling her she was a fool.”)

More recently, Adelle Waldman joined this honorable tradition with “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” Her characters, gathered at a housewarming party, discuss the fate of Eliot’s Tertius Lydgate, the ambitious doctor whose professional aspirations are ruined by his misguided choice in marriage. Eliot was “not exactly unbiased,” one character observes. “Smart women have a personal stake in vilifying men who fail to appreciate smart women.” Eliot’s themes—the difficulties of communication within and without marriage; the limitations placed on women’s accomplishments and expectations by restrictive social structures; the gradual substitution of resignation in the place of aspiration—have proved enduringly inspiring to generations of writers, as well as readers. But the density of the novel’s structure, and its psychological complexity, seem to have rendered it too daunting for “Clueless”-like efforts at a wholesale relocation to a new context.

Which means that one ongoing attempt to do so is worth watching, for its ambition as well as for its charm. “Middlemarch: The Series,” written and directed by Rebecca Shoptaw, an undergraduate in the film department at Yale, is a Web serial that will run, ultimately, to seventy episodes. So far, the first half is available online; the series will start up again in August. Shoptaw has recast Eliot’s residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch as students at Lowick College, in the fictional town of Middlemarch, Connecticut. Dorothea Brooke, Eliot’s heroine, is now Dot Brooke, an idealistic, thoughtful sophomore, played by a Yale undergrad named Mia Fowler, who has a beguiling vulnerability and intelligence on camera. Dot has yet to figure out her major, and has decided to film herself and her friends for a year, just to see what she can make of the results. “I feel like if we can watch and understand where we are now, it will help us figure out what we want to do later,” she says in the first episode. “And, it’s like, half the time we just sit and wait for things to happen.” The series, which largely consists of Dot and her friends speaking directly to the camera, is filmed in settings intended to suggest a variety of dorm rooms, as well as in the kitchen of a pizza parlor known as Stone Court (which is, actually, a pretty good name for a pizza parlor).

In her previous work, available on her YouTube channel, Shoptaw has mined classic literature for L.G.B.T.Q. themes. In one video, she has taken Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23, which begins, “As an unperfect actor on the stage / Who with his fear is put beside his part,” and turned it into a gay love story just short of four minutes long. Her most notable innovation with “Middlemarch: The Series” is gender-bending the cast, envisioning a social group in which gender identity and sexual orientation are variable and possibly mutable. Sir James Chettam, Dorothea Brooke’s first suitor, is, in Eliot’s novel, the picture of conservative conformity. In Shoptaw’s reimagining, Chettam becomes Jamie, a meek scientist who wears a knit beanie and a buttoned-up shirt and hides behind a pair of owlish spectacles, and whose preferred gender pronoun is “they.” (Jamie is played by Lola Hourihane, whose cast bio reveals, “They previously played a wall in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ a performance which brought their grandmother to tears (of shame).”) Mary Garth, the quiet, diligent young woman whom many readers have seen as the alternative heroine of Eliot’s story, has been turned into Max Garth, a gay townie who resembles Mary in his humility and intelligence, if not in his appearance. Mary Garth, whom Eliot describes as “brown,” has “a broad face and square brow, well-marked eyebrows and curly dark hair,” characteristics that, in the world of Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” amount to plain and ordinary. Kai Nugent, the African-American actor who plays Max, also has a broad face, square brow, well-marked eyebrows, and curly dark hair, but on him these features read as strikingly handsome.

In an interview with the Web site Fandomania, Shoptaw said that she was able to imagine “Middlemarch” through this L.G.B.T.Q. lens because, unlike other Victorian novels she had read, its “healthier relationships are almost entirely free of the gendered power dynamics that too often shape the relationships in classic novels.” Shoptaw has distinguished company in questioning the gendered characterizations of figures in “Middlemarch.” Henry James, who was alert to such issues, wondered in particular about the masculinity of Will Ladislaw, with whom Dorothea falls in love. James found Ladislaw unconvincing: “vague and impalpable . . . a woman’s man.” In Shoptaw’s reworking, Ladislaw becomes Billie, played by a female actor who goes by the name C. B. G., and it will be interesting to see, as the series progresses, how faithfully Shoptaw renders the ultimate subsuming of Dorothea’s ambitions and identity into those of Ladislaw—a fictional conclusion that many feminist readers, from the eighteen-seventies until today, have considered a capitulation on the part of Eliot.

But one might also take issue with Shoptaw’s suggestion that the novel’s “healthier relationships” are where the story’s principal focus lies. It is true that the relationship between Mary Garth and Fred Vincy—perhaps the healthiest in the book—could be seen as a model of gender equity, or at least parity. But Eliot’s greatest accomplishment in “Middlemarch” is to anatomize bad relationships—to show, with excruciating psychological penetration, the ways in which individuals fail to recognize one another, becoming disappointed and embittered by a partner’s failure to measure up to fantasy. If the marriages between Dorothea and Edward Casaubon, her pedantic scholar husband, and Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, the stubbornly conventional town beauty, were healthier, they would be a lot less compelling to read about.

On the evidence of the episodes released so far, Shoptaw has been faithful to Eliot’s slow-moving world of Middlemarch, while also taking some necessary liberties with the complexity of the novel. With a cast of only ten, some of the functions of Eliot’s minor characters have been subsumed into her major ones. Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s pious, overweening banker, has remained offscreen; he is the funder of an internship that Fred Vincy—played with boyish gusto by Oliver Shoulson—assumes he’s going to win, and doesn’t. It’s too early to know for sure, but it seems likely that Shoptaw has eliminated one major strand that Eliot developed in “Middlemarch”: Bulstrode’s rise and his shaming fall, which is crucial in contributing to the novel’s monumental gravity. And thus far, at least, Shoptaw’s Lydgate is an arrogant chump, whose confident aspirations are played for comedy—“What does that bracelet mean? Or is it just a hair scrunchie?” he asks Rosamond—rather than reaching the dimension of tragedy, which is the light in which Eliot saw his struggle and his renunciation. Shoptaw is on surer ground with the character of Rosamond, who is convinced that her flirtation with Lydgate is an I.R.L. rom-com—a fitting update of Eliot’s suggestion that Rosamond has gathered all her ideas about love from second-rate novels.

Still, it’s an impossibly tall order to expect a Web series to approach the nuance of a nineteenth-century novel—of the nineteenth-century novel. And there are moments in which Shoptaw’s chosen medium offers useful narrative devices that weren’t available to Eliot. Casaubon’s explanation of his unbearably dull research dissertation—“Being and World: Transcendental Otherness and Identity”—is given as a sequence of short cuts, thus rendered even more incomprehensible. (In Shoptaw’s retelling, Casaubon, Dorothea’s much older scholar husband, is a grad student. Presumably to cast him as a professor would have violated Lowick College’s consensual-relations code, which, if it is anything like Yale’s, forbids any sexual or amorous relationship between teachers and undergrads.) And Shoptaw’s use of the video camera as an opportunity for intimate confessional is a clever substitute for Eliot’s narrative technique of describing the inner life of her characters, and showing the ways in which their understanding of themselves and others is circumscribed by their restricted points of view.

There is also a winning affection for the nineteenth-century novel in Shoptaw’s project: she clearly loves “Middlemarch,” and feels enriched by having read it. And for non-college-aged viewers, the series serves as a poignant representation of undergrad life as, apparently, it is lived now. In “Rain Check,” the best episode of the series so far, Dot and Billie find themselves alone on a rainy afternoon in Casaubon’s apartment, with a couple of cameras at hand. They film themselves goofing about—drawing cartoonish pictures of each other, and taking an online quiz to find out which Hogwarts house each would belong to. Deliberately or not, Shoptaw reminds her viewers that, for her generation—indeed, for everyone under the age of thirty-five—reading the Harry Potter books is far more likely to constitute their most formative literary experience than is reading “Middlemarch,” or any other Victorian novel, for that matter.

In the episode, Dot and Billie lie on the rug together—a reference to Eliot’s preferred metaphor for Ladislaw’s bohemianism, which is indicated by his predilection for lying around on his friends’ carpets. (In Eliot’s novel, Dorothea doesn’t get to do it with him.) Flat on the floor, with the camera looking down on them, they exchange what they understand to be the meaning of life. “To flourish and help others flourish,” Billie offers, with quiet certitude. Dot is more provisional. “I really don’t know,” she says. “Maybe you’re supposed to figure it out. Like, the meaning of life is to continuously try to find the meaning of life.” It’s a lovely moment, conveying a spirit of youth and uncertainty—the same spirit that George Eliot sought to bring to the page almost a hundred and fifty years ago. In it, Shoptaw captures what remains constant about the restless inquiries of young people who want their lives to be meaningful, no matter what has changed about the world they may find themselves in the middle of.

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