Here are the facts:
1) I love Jane Austen.
2) The 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is perfect.
3) I’m definitely feeling a lot of zombie fatigue these days (I can’t do The Walking Dead anymore…I just…can’t).
So….Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Why?
Story genres wax and wane in popularity and, thus, so too do movies. What is “in” counts for a lot where box office dollars are concerned and so we see a never-ending scramble on the part of the studios to figure out the next big “thing.” They option books and comics before they even hit the shelves and are constantly chasing after the studio that breaks big with a new idea. Superhero universes, vampires, found footage films, YA dystopias – they came, they saw, they conquered…and are still doing so in some cases. Like, for instance, zombies. Zombies are not going away. Zombies won’t go away (even if you want them to). Which is one of the reasons for this past weekend’s new release, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But, we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Ultimately, it really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that some writer somewhere made the leap to combining two (or more) popular genres of stories to appeal to that many more paying customers (readers or viewers). It’s a gamble though…putting too much of genre A into the story may not make the fans of genre B too happy, and vice versa.
Still, as the saying goes: High risk, high reward. And, looking back, we can see there have been a number of writers and directors who have forged ahead with this idea, and been largely successful doing so. Many of Woody Allen’s films fit this mold (Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, just to name a few), as does the more recent part of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography (Django Unchained: I have to yet to find a way to neatly fit this film into a genre), not to mention a number of Coen Brothers movies (heck, Hail, Caesar!, which was also released in theaters this weekend, is something of an ode to nearly all film genres!). There are, in fact, entire genres that are made up films that…combine genres! Both spoofs and mockumentaries have gained a foothold in theaters (I mean, Young Frankenstein and This is Spinal Tap are classics, right?).
So, the lesson I’ve learned from looking at all of this is that comedy is the easiest genre to combine with others, which makes sense. But I would like, for a moment, to give credit where credit is due. There have been a number of successful genre defying films over the years that aren’t necessarily big on the laughs, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Blade Runner (film noir/sci-fi), Alien (horror/sci-fi), Chronicle (found footage/sci-fi). Ok so apparently sci-fi is the next easiest genre to combine with others, but I don’t think anyone is complaining (*Side note: I know that, somewhere in here, I’m supposed to mention Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter…but I’m just going to skip past that one, ok? If you like that movie, please sound off below! It left no impression on me whatsoever…).
But let’s get back to zombies. I’ve got to hand it to the undead, they’ve stuck around so long in movies in large part because they do actually combine well with other genres. They are, of course, a staple in horror films like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (both versions), and 28 Days Later. They also pop up an awful lot in horror/action or adventure films like World War Z and The Resident Evil franchise. There has even been a zombie love story; 2013′s Warm Bodies. Once again, however, the genre that plays best with these rotting corpses: comedy.
Shaun of the Dead. Need I say more? I mean, even I, who is getting pretty tired of zombies, can watch that movie on loop. We’ve also got the classic Dead-Alive in this category, as well as the more recent Zombieland. When you think about it, though there is something obviously gruesome and terrifying about the undead walking again, there is also something inherently funny about the way they’ve come to be realized in most fiction: that lumbering walk, the moaning, and their usually pretty vacant expressions. Because re-animated corpses tend to lack, well, animation, they’re kind of like blank canvases that writers and directors can build more interesting stories, characters, and themes around (this is why I think The Walking Dead is as popular as it is – yes, finding inventive ways to kill zombies is fun, but they are the least interesting part of the show – it’s the people who have to live in a world where zombies exist that are the main draw).
Ok, so I’ve established that A) movie mashups are definitely a thing in Hollywood, and a generally lucrative one at that and B) zombies are popular for a reason. Which brings me back to my original question: Why mashup zombies with one of the most beloved British Literature classics of all time? What in “Pride and Prejudice” says “why yes, adding the undead to our assembly dance sequence would be just the thing to make it sing!”? At first glance, absolutely nothing.
At second and third glances, it’s still a stretch, but there are a couple of things that make this a more intriguing mashup than you would originally think.
First, people who don’t really know Jane Austen don’t realize that she was actually quite witty, even funny. Every novel she wrote includes at least one caricature or over the top version of a character meant to be absurd. In “Pride and Prejudice” there are actually two: Mrs. Bennet, the rather hysterical mother of five daughters who cannot inherit their home due to the patriarchal system in place at the time (early 1800s) and Mr. (excuse me, pastor) Collins, a finicky distant cousin who will get to inherit the Bennet estate and is looking for a wife befitting a man lucky enough to count the great Lady Catherine de Bourgh as his patroness (I type with as much sarcasm as I can). So maybe zombies wouldn’t be sooooo out of place since there is some humor already in the story? Hmmm.
Ok, here’s a better reason (and ultimately why I enjoyed the film – yes, I actually did enjoy it!). Ms. Austen very much wrote of her time, but she also wrote a number of quite strong female characters, and Elizabeth, the second eldest Bennet daughter, is her chief example of that. Lizzie is intelligent and far too spunky for her mother’s taste. She’s not interested in marrying for money (gasp!) and often says what she thinks to people society deems her superiors (double gasp!). I imagine this was the starting point for author Seth Grahame-Smith when he wrote the novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (on which the movie was based). What he came up with, and what the film surprisingly captures in a number of scenes, is quite progressive. By placing the Bennet girls in a world practically overrun by the undead, the author was able to give them an excuse to do much more than sew, dance, and play the piano forte. They get to be warriors. A Lizzie who not only spars with words, but with swords and guns too? Yeah, that’s kind of awesome. She was never a damsel in distress in the novel, but the movie puts her on near equal footing with the dashing but haughty Mr. Darcy (brilliantly showcased during an action packed proposal scene in the film) and the story actually feels elevated due to this feminist approach…all because of zombies (who, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how much you like zombies, don’t play much of a central role in the film…other than creating the backdrop).
So there you have it. Purists on either side of the aisle probably won’t love this movie, but I think more people will be won over than not. Take it as a fun zombie romp with women in corsets and garters slaying the undead in slow motion or as a more thoughtful look at women being in control of their own destinies (aside from Lizzie, the films version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by the indomitable Lena Heady, is actually something Austen may have approved of…maybe), either way there is something to enjoy. And it’s just further proof that mashups are a creative way to reinvent stories as they come and go in popularity at the movies.
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