What do you get when you cross a 19th-century English novel with a 21st-century college campus? This is the question Rebecca Shoptaw ’18 explores in her web series, “Middlemarch,” based on the 1872 George Eliot novel. The series, filmed as a collection of straight-to-camera vlogs, follows the intersecting lives of a group of college students at the fictional Lowick University in Middlemarch, Connecticut. The first nine episodes, screened at the Whitney Humanities Center on March 5, introduce the primary storylines of Dorothea Brooke and Fred Vincy as they pursue love, flirtation and connection as documented through a series of smart, pleasant and often humorous three-minute video clips.
The genre of web series comes with its own set of specific limitations and difficulties. Rather than frame the episodes in the genre of web series, Shoptaw crafts “Middlemarch” as a documentary project compiled by lead character Dorothea “Dot” Brooke. The viewer watches the series as continuous film, presumably edited together and uploaded by Dot after the fact. This choice deviates from that of other literary web series, most famously the “Lizzie Bennett Diaries,” a 2013 series modernizing the story of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” which directly acknowledges the internet audience in a style similar to popular Youtube vloggers. Occasionally, “Middlemarch” suffers from this disconnect between platform and storytelling strategy, the audience wondering what compelled Dot to choose specific clips and why a documentary about the lives of college students is only told from a limited number of locations and in one filming style.
Still, despite these minor shortcomings, “Middlemarch,” in many ways, embraces and capitalizes on the intimacy of the Youtube platform. My experience watching all nine episodes in a 40-minute block is surely different from that of most viewers. The first five episodes will air on March 15, then all subsequent episodes will be uploaded sequentially every Monday and Wednesday for the series run of 70 episodes total. Through this time period, viewers are given the privilege of checking in with the cast and the story. Without the formality of attending a movie theater or committing to an entire 40-minute television program, viewers can incorporate a web series like “Middlemarch” into their daily routine. “Middlemarch” builds on this idea by adopting a relaxed, easy tone, checking in with viewers like old friends. Fowler as Dot is a standout among the cast; never forced or overly “acting,” she is both charismatic and relatable, reflecting a personality far more similar to that of a normal college student than most dramatic interpretations of young adults. As I watch, I can’t decide if I want to be friends more with actors or the characters they play. It’s a close tie.
The characters of Eliot’s play also translate surprisingly well to the small screen college setting. Protagonist Dot and her sister Celia transform from whip-smart British orphans in the care of their uncle to best friends and college roommates struggling to decide their majors, while Dot’s aristocratic love interest becomes a Kant-loving section asshole, known for monologuing on the value of “transcendentalist otherness and identity.”
In her introduction of the series at an advance screening last week, Shoptaw described her two main goals in bringing the world of “Middlemarch” to life. The first is representation, a common objective in all of her work. Middlemarch features a notably diverse cast, in ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, adapting a number of storylines to reflect more inclusive, modern relationships than the series’ 19th-century counterpart. When Shoptaw says she creates films to express stories that are too often not told, she does not mean the inspiring tale of a token queer person or person of color, but rather the countless untold lives of nondescript minority students that exist everywhere.
Shoptaw concluded her remarks by praising the novel’s portrayal of normal life, “a study of provincial life,” as termed in the subtitle. “In college,” she explains, “there’s so much pressure to be in some way, extraordinary, it’s very important to remember how nice the ordinary is.” When I watched “Middlemarch” from the comfort of my bed, the fairy lights and Ikea picture frames in Dot’s room reminded me of those on the wall of my suitemate’s bedroom. In an environment like Yale, bursting with a seemingly never-ending line of drama and larger-than-life performances — all wonderful in their own right — there is something to be said for a project based on the very opposite: the monotony, sweetness and only occasional theater of normal life.
Contact Ryan Howzell at firstname.lastname@example.org .