There’s a classic novel renaissance taking over YouTube. With the breakout success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, independent writers and actors alike have gravitated to literary adaptations, and Canadian magazine VerveGirl has seen Carmilla Karnstein leading the pack. Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s gothic antagonist from 1871 is reimagined as a university student in 2014, whose interactions with a sweet and determined journalism major have charmed thousands of viewers, all the way to a second season due to premiere in February 2015.
Oh yeah, and she’s a vampire.
Carmilla started out quietly, with an audience reception that was not only positive, but grew stronger with every week. The titular character isn’t introduced until the second episode—it’s chirpy Silas University freshman Laura Hollis (Elise Bauman) who begins the story with the search for her missing roommate Betty Spielsdorf (Grace Glowicki). The school administration is dismissive at best, snide at worst, providing only a index card with multiple choice options as to what could have happened to Betty; then it begins to sprout fungus. Laura isn’t deterred, however, and now she’s got a hell of an Investigative Journalism project to carry out and document.
When Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis) shows up claiming to be Laura’s new roommate, it’s an explosive first meeting that ends with Laura threatening to get Carmilla kicked out of their room “so fast there’s gonna be scorch marks on those leather pants.” Her threat doesn’t quite pan out as well as Laura expects, and soon there’s more to deal with than Carmilla’s penchant for clogging the shower drain. Betty’s not the first girl to disappear in the Silas campus, and there may be more disappearances to come.
I’d read the original novella after enjoying a related short story in the YA anthology Rags and Bones, and was surprised by how I’d heard so little about these characters growing up. I had actually read more classics than children’s books when I was a kid, but even the English lit classes I took hadn’t mentioned Carmilla when we covered gothic literature.
The webseries takes those characters and gives them a fresh stage to stand on. More importantly, it takes le Fanu’s broad character strokes and fills them out: Laura and Carmilla are gay. Best friends Lola Perry (Annie Briggs) and Susan LaFontaine (Kaitlyn Alexander) don’t reference their gender identities outright, but LaFontaine does ask not to be referred to by their first name, a conscious decision that mirrors that of queer people today who are learning about and inhabiting their identities. Danny Lawrence (Sharon Belle), Laura’s Lit TA, towers over the rest of the cast, which makes for some truly adorable scenes when she flirts with Laura. Not a single person bats an eye (pun absolutely intended) when it comes to romantic choices—mostly they’re just worried that Carmilla’s going to eat them alive in the middle of the night.
The series is filmed in Toronto with an all-Canadian cast, and with only 36 episodes, it doesn’t have as much time to set up character arcs and plotlines as series like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries or Emma Approved have had. Given the short time frame, I was extremely impressed by how easy it was to fall in love with Laura and Carmilla and be invested in their relationship. Laura’s insistence on finding out exactly why girls keep disappearing from Silas would do Veronica Mars (her role model) proud (with a spatula no less), and Elise Bauman is a joy to watch. Natasha Negovanlis’ Carmilla is an endearing anti-heroine if there ever was one, dropping affectionate nicknames for Laura in almost every episode, while still remaining aloof and distant. Perry and LaFontaine are incredible supporting characters, highlighting the foundation of lady friendships that this series is built on. And Sharon Belle as Danny? I dare you not to be charmed by her confidence and strength.
It’s hard to talk plotlines without spoiling the show completely, and part of its strength is the utter unpredictability of said plotlines. Carmilla is based on the novella, but the creators have expanded the world considerably, spinning their own mythology around Silas University. The mythology is not only strong enough to carry the series, but it has also revved up fandom speculation not unlike that of mainstream TV shows like Doctor Who and Teen Wolf. Character growth is well paced and well written, and the plot twists are earned and genuinely surprising. And if my record of three rewatches since the first season ended on December 2 is anything to go by, it’s just a really entertaining and funny show.
Whether you’re an avid fan of literature adaptations or a reluctant reader or just someone looking for a new satisfying series, Carmilla won’t take long to sink its fangs into you.