Are we at peak Jane Austen? Have Austen adaptations jumped the shark? What did Jane Austen know about corpse-lovers? Catherine Engh, Cailey Hall, and Caroline Winter discuss the recent film version of the Austen mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Bios: Catherine Engh is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the Graduate Center at CUNY and a writing instructor at Hunter college. Her research explores the intersections between Romantic literature and philosophy. Cailey Hall is a PhD candidate in the English department at UCLA. She is working on a dissertation that explores the concept of digestion (as somatic process and as metaphor) in Romantic literature. Her other research interests include food studies, fan cultures, the Gothic, author afterlives, gender studies, and Samuel Johnson. Caroline Winter is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Her area of research is British Romantic literature, and her interests include digital humanities, literature and economics, Romantic print and popular culture, women’s writing, and the Gothic. She is writing a dissertation about Gothic economics, investigating Gothic representations of Romantic economic theory as well as the economics of reading and writing Gothic literature in the early nineteenth century.
Leaving the theater after ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ I overheard someone describe the film as ‘cute.’ It’s a word that I wouldn’t expect as a descriptor of a zombie film, but that nonetheless captures something of the movie’s spirit. This is an adaptation of Austen’s novel that emphasizes the romance plot between Elizabeth and Darcy and that softens the moral failings that novel readers have come to associate with characters like Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. Collins (played by Matt Smith) reminded me a little more of Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs. Palmer than of the Mr. Solmes-like bully in the original novel who believes that he is entitled to marry whomever he wishes. In the 1940s, the psychologist and foundational Austen critic D.W. Harding claimed that Austen’s satirical characters admit “the eruption of fear and hatred into the relationships of everyday life.” In making Lady Catherine into a role model and Mr Collins into a mindless but generally well-meaning character, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ blunts the satirical edge in the original novel’s representation of a world where bad people remain respectable and ugly feelings circulate unchecked (an edge I’d argue the ‘95 BBC adaptation retains)
As for the film’s translation of major characters: Lily James plays a spirited Elizabeth Bennet but I was disappointed with the film’s overall interpretation of Darcy, whose pride verges on war-mongering cruelty. Whereas Elizabeth’s instinct is to trust the non-threatening zombies, Darcy—a Colonel in the film–is more aggressive. At one point, he is impelled to kill a knocked out Bingley and Elizabeth has to tell him to be a better friend. Later in the film, he agitates a horde of peaceable zombies by feeding them human brains, which they have not yet been exposed to (they’ve been eating pig’s brains). Though Darcy does this to save Lydia, the action remains a little questionable. It is a weakness of the film’s plotting, it seems to me, that it’s not quite clear why Darcy had to agitate the zombies.
Now I’ll turn to what I liked about the film. The supplementation of martial arts worked well, I thought, in scenes where verbal jabs (between Elizabeth and Darcy but also between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine) were paired with physical ones. In her novels, Austen has a way of allowing sharp instruments to come into view in scenes where tensions run high. I’m thinking specifically of that scene in Sense and Sensibility where Edward, knowing that he has wronged Elinor, picks up a pair of sewing scissors and cuts the sheath into pieces. (As a side note, I sort of suspect that Virginia Woolf might have been thinking of this scene when she decided to have Peter Walsch play with that pocket knife in Mrs Dalloway.) In any case, the link that the film draws between Elizabeth’s ‘inner worth’ and her skill with the sword plays out well on screen because skill as a warrior is just so much more visually demonstrable than “quickness of parts” or moral intelligence. And ultimately, the substitution of merit-as-power-of-self-defense for merit as abstract inner quality empowers Elizabeth to a degree unprecedented in the novel and in previous adaptations, which is kind of interesting.
The last third of the film breaks decisively from the novel (there is no visit to Pemberley!) and plays out as a war flick. I’d like to think of the sublime CGI footage of London burning and the post-credit shots of an advancing zombie army as translating into visual form a state of alarm that is crucial to the aesthetic power of Austen’s novels. The future at the end of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ is radically uncertain. This is a world where Darcy could have been as dead as the first Eliza from Sense and Sensibility and where Wickham is wounded and changed forever. Concealed for much of the movie, Wickham’s zombie bite hints at conditions of wartime contingency that are not explicitly represented in Pride and Prejudice. Whereas Austen alludes to Wickham’s offstage dissipation in the novel, the bite gives us a directly apprehensible sense of the trauma that this character has been exposed to as a consequence of his enlistment (Wickham is, as we know, a poorer version of Darcy). Wickham has literally been dehumanized and, when no one will lend an ear to his plan for zombie-assimilation, it’s no wonder he heads a revolution.
Jane Austen famously humble bragged that Pride and Prejudice was “rather too light, bright, and sparkling; it wants shade.” Burr Steers – the director and screenwriter of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – seems to have taken this statement at face value and given his big-screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup bestseller that missing shade (and not in the Paris is Burning sense of the word; Austen is already the queen of that kind of shade). As someone who is fascinated by Jane Austen’s afterlives and the ever-expanding world of Austen adaptations, I was perhaps overly optimistic about this latest iteration, which I hoped would combine the novel’s delights with the campiness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Instead, this version felt heavy, dull, and flat.
Near the end of Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, her engrossing history of Austen’s reception in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, Claudia L. Johnson remarks: “Jane Austen’s celebrity today is categorically different…in that it is so commonly mediated through screen adaptations. And if this remains the case, Janeism in the future will be a different thing.” This has become increasingly clear in the last decade or so of film and TV Austen adaptations and homages, most of which feel ever more distant from their source material. I think it’s difficult to overstate the influence of the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, and I’m not unconvinced that most subsequent “adaptations” of Austen’s 1813 novel take the film version as the ur-text, in lieu of Austen’s actual text. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ lackluster Darcy dutifully jumps into a lake while wearing a billowy white shirt.) Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an Austen “originalist.” I do not believe that any text is static or open to only one correct interpretation, and I definitely believe in the creative value and legitimacy of what Henry Jenkins and others have termed “participatory cultures.” For example, I think “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” is one of the best Pride and Prejudice adaptations out there – its creators are clearly smart, thoughtful readers of the novel, but are also not afraid to innovate with the story and adapt it for twenty-first century social mores (and social media).
But what I’m a little apprehensive about is how Austen is increasingly separated from her work. In a movie like Austenland, for example (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book on which it’s based), Austen herself is barely invoked, instead heralded primarily via the material trappings of her books: country homes, empire-waist dresses, and what has perhaps become her most famous byproduct: a lifesize cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. “Jane Austen” has increasingly become a talismanic phrase that conjures exactly the opposite of “zombie mayhem,” hence the seeming comic potential of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Eisensteinian montage of the Bennet sisters lacing up their corsets in one shot, and slipping daggers into their garters in the next (never mind the distracting polyester sheen of said garters).
But of course what this reductionist view of Austen as the writer of HEAs (happily ever afters) and balls misses is precisely what is already present in her writing: the violence. In Cults and Cultures, Johnson details how Austen was particularly popular with World War I soldiers, as exemplified by Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “The Janeites,” which Johnson argues offers “an intensely tragic reading of her novels.” For Johnson, this story helps reveal that “Austen’s novels are about nothing if not the perils of living in a confined, narrow, profoundly bruising place where experience unfolds under the aegis of ordeal, where vulnerable, deferent young protagonists with next to no autonomy are exposed to adversities so brutal that they cannot be essayed, much less assailed directly. In Austen’s world, that narrow place is called a neighborhood; during World War I it is called a trench.” As Virginia Woolf put it: “Here is Jane Austen, a great writer as we all agree, but, for my own part, I would rather not find myself alone in the room with her.” The undead hordes in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies might gruesomely embody the threats latent in Austen’s fiction, but they lack her devastating bite.
I was really excited to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Pride and Prejudice is my favourite novel, and although I’m usually pretty sceptical about this type of adaptation, the trailer promised good things. However, the movie played in my city for only about a week, so I’m guessing it didn’t sell a lot of tickets, and I didn’t get to see it on the big screen.
So, although I haven’t seen the movie yet, as a scholar of Romantic Gothic literature I can contribute to this discussion my take on the idea of the novel P&P&Z and the movie adaptation.
Although zombies are one of the most prevalent monsters in popular culture now, this wasn’t the case when Austen wrote the first version of the novel–called First Impressions—in 1795, and the retitled version—Pride and Prejudice—which was published in 1813. The craze for Gothic novels peaked in the 1790s, with novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796). Imagining a Gothic version of P&P is therefore perfectly in keeping with the mood of its time. In fact, we know from Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (1818, written around 1798–1799) that Austen was an admirer of Gothic novels and knew a good deal about them.
Although the spirit of P&P&Z is in line with the Gothic mood that saturated Romantic culture, its use of zombies is not. In fact, zombies were not part of the stable of Romantic monsters, at least not in the sense we understand them today as reanimated corpses, hungry for human flesh. In that form, zombies are a twentieth-century cultural phenomenon. The first usage of the word in English, according to the OED, occurred in 1819, in Robert Southey’s History of Brazil, six years after P&P was published. It lists uses of the term in literature beginning in 1900.
Revenants of different sorts are not uncommon in Gothic literature, but most often appear as ghosts or reincarnations of the dead rather than zombies. One of the most influential early Gothic works is William Taylor’s English translation of Bürger’s poem “Lenore,” in which a woman despairs over the loss of her lover, only to be whisked away by a figure she thinks is him. At the end of the poem, she discovers with horror that it is not her lover at all, but a spectral corpse-lover figure, come to carry her away to hell:
And when hee from his steede alytte,
His armour, black as cinder,
Did moulder, moulder all awaye,
As were it made of tinder.
His head became a naked skull;
Nor haire nor eyne had hee:
His body grew a skeleton,
Whilome so blythe of blee.
And att his dry and boney heele
No spur was left to be;
And inn his witherde hande you might
The scythe and hour-glasse see.
While this corpse-lover figure is not a zombie, it does have the withered, decaying flesh reminiscent of one.
“Lenore” was hugely influential on Gothic poetry, novels, and drama throughout the Romantic period, and there are a few other zombie-like revenants that could perhaps be considered precursors to literary zombies, particularly (and perhaps not surprisingly) in Matthew Lewis’s work. Lewis’ poem “Alzono the Brave and Fair Imogene” first appeared as part of his novel The Monk, but was also published separately and was extremely popular as a standalone ballad. The influence of “Lenore” and the trope of the demon/corpse lover is clear. In the poem, Alonzo and Imogene are lovers, but Imogene marries another richer man when Alonzo goes to war. A mysterious guest appears at her wedding:
His presence all bosoms appeared to dismay;
The guests sat in silence and fear;
At length spake the bride,—while she trembled,—“I pray,
Sir knight, that your helmet aside you would lay
And deign to partake of our cheer.”
The lady is silent; the stranger complies—
His visor he slowly unclosed;
O God! what a sight met Fair Imogine’s eyes!
What words can express her dismay and surprise,
When a skeleton’s head was exposed!
All present then uttered a terrified shout,
All turned with disgust from the scene;
The worms they crept in, and the worms they crept out,
And sported his eyes and his temples about,
While the spectre addressed Imogine:
“Behold me, thou false one, behold me!” he cried,
“Remember Alonzo the Brave!
God grants that, to punish thy falsehood and pride,
My ghost at thy marriage should sit by thy side;
Should tax thee with perjury, claim thee as bride,
And bear thee away to the grave!”
Thus saying his arms round the lady he wound,
While loudly she shrieked in dismay;
Then sunk with his prey through the wide-yawning ground,
Nor ever again was Fair Imogine found,
Or the spectre that bore her away.
This example of the corpse-lover is even more graphic, since it’s clearly a decaying body, riddled with worms that “sported his eyes and temples about.” Another similar (but less gory) example is from Lewis’ poem “The Gay Gold Ring,” published in his Tales of Wonder in 1801. In this poem, Elmerick is engaged to a lady named Emmeline, whom he has never met. Before the marriage, he is visited by a strange lady at night, who asks for his gold betrothal ring. He agrees to give it to her if she lies with him as his bride for three nights. On the third night, she disappears, and Elmerick discovers that she is actually the ghost of Emmeline.
“Once! — twice! — thrice by your side
Have I lain as your bride;
Sir Knight! Sir Knight, beware you!
Your ring I crave!
Your ring I’ll have,
Or limb from limb I’ll tear you!” —
She drew from his hand the ring so gay;
No limb could he move, and no word could he say.
“See, Arthur, I bring
To my grave, thy ring,”
Murmur’d the maiden, and hied her away.
Then sprang so light
From his couch the knight;
With shame his cheek was red:
And, filled with rage,
His little foot page
He call’d from beneath the bed.
“Come hither, come hither,
My lad so lither;
While under my bed you lay,
What did you see,
And what maiden was she,
Who left me at breaking of day?”
“Oh! master, I
No maid could spy,
As I’ve a soul to save;
But when the cock crew,
The lamp burn’d blue,
And the tent smell’d like a grave!”
This example is interesting because, although the lady is a ghost, she is also corpse-like since she “smell’d like a grave,” suggesting that she has somehow emerged from the ground as zombies do, and unlike many other Romantic revenants, who seem like emanations rather than decaying bodies.
These corpse-lovers are common in poetry, but two other revenants appear in fiction. The first, and probably the most famous Romantic monster, is the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Although the creature is usually portrayed as zombie-like in movies, in the novel he possesses superhuman strength and speed, and is highly intelligent. His body is also not composed of parts of corpses, as it is often depicted; rather, Victor Frankenstein constructs his body out of dead tissues. So, although he is in reanimated tissue, he is in all other ways very different from a zombie.
Vampires are another example of Romantic revenants, but again, these bear few similarities to zombies. A version of the vampire appears in Byron’s poem “The Giaour” (1813), but in this case the Giaour is cursed as a vampire, and is compelled to feed as a punishment. The first appearance of a modern vampire is in John Polidori’s Gothic tale “The Vampyre” (1819), which features Lord Ruthven, who is buried and emerges from the grave, as zombies do. However, he is alive, not decomposing as zombies tend to be. He is, though, the only monster who feeds on the living, although he drinks blood rather than eats flesh as zombies do.
So, although the idea of a Gothic rewriting of P&P is a fascinating thing, the use of zombies as monsters is actually quite anachronistic. Pride and Prejudice and Vampires would have been a more accurate choice given the literary monsters of the time.
Cailey – I think that you are so right to say that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies lacks Austen’s “devastating bite” and I love your suggestion that the film’s “reductionist view of Austen” may stem from a whole series of adaptations that teach us to associate her work with material glitz and glamour–“country homes, empire-waist dresses”—and fan culture kitsch like the “lifesize cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy” in Austenland. In the 2011 Cambridge Companion, Kathryn Sutherland argues that “there will always be something wrong when film adapts an Austen novel, because film is necessarily intensely preoccupied with the surface, contours and the space that objects occupy.” She reminds us that, when objects happen to appear at all in the fiction, they are generally sources of fundamental ambivalence (e.g. Jane Fairfax’s piano, Edward Ferrars’ ring). If adaptations encourage us indulge an uncomplicated association of Austen the iconic literary figure with the spectacle of balls, marriage ceremonies, big estates and, you know, the wet body of Colin Firth, this association is at odds with the “strong distrust of visual understanding” that we find in Austen’s novels.
Sutherland goes on to cite an argument that Martin Wroe, a journalist writing for the Observer, made about the 1996 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee: Wroe noted that the film “exposed aspects of 1990s Thatcherite society” in its representation of “the perspective of the southern Home Counties, and the…cultural impoverishment of Laura Ashley consumerist kitsch—what another film critic summed up as costume drama’s ‘Quality Street—National Trust village—Empire line’ values.” I can sort of understand why Austen has become synonymous with nostalgia brands and neoliberal values: the novels do emphasize the desirability of money and of property, if not of specific material objects. But I’m troubled by the possibility that consumer desire may be all that Austen has come to stand for. I’m with you, Cailey, in thinking that something important is lost when we associate Austen with all the fine and kitchy things that money can buy (those polyester garters, for instance) and meanwhile forget what her novels have to tell us about the brutality of ordinary life in that “narrow place [that] is called a neighborhood.”
Catherine – I love the way you refer to the movie making visible the “state of alarm that is crucial to the aesthetic power of Austen’s novels” and the “conditions of wartime contingency that are not explicitly represented in Pride & Prejudice.” Those are great points, and I found myself thinking of the film as some sort of mashup response to Alan Bewell’s Romanticism and Colonial Disease and Mary Favret’s War at a Distance. In his fantastic book exploring how “colonial disease shaped British culture…as an entire range of writings reflected on this new epidemiological world and on its consequences for both colonizers and colonized,” Bewell develops the idea of the “medicalization of space” (xiv, 33). He offers some beautiful close readings of Romantic writing to explain how the authors he studies portray these “unhealthy” foreign spaces invading English territory. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies represents this anxiety writ large, as the expositional puppet show depicts the inexorable spread of the zombifying disease to English shores. Of course, these invading zombie hordes also represent the threat of foreign military invasion lurking at the edges of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (there’s a reason Meryton is playing host to the militia). War at a Distance persuasively argues for British Romanticism “as a wartime phenomenon,” which this film certainly evokes, albeit with more brain-eating than I’d wager happened at Waterloo (9).
On a less academic note, I’m with you on the dud Darcy! What possessed the costume designer to frequently clad him in those ill-fitting black leather getups? Maybe the sound was off in my theater, but in the opening scene (in which “Colonel” Darcy inspects a house party for a hidden zombie), you could hear every squeaky, leathery step he took.
Caroline – I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to see the film (although I don’t think you missed much), but I’m very grateful for this fascinating revenant history! Given that P&P&Z’s Wickham is suffering from a well-hidden zombie bite, he does seem like a potential corpse-lover. Although I definitely think I would have preferred Pride and Prejudice and Vampires, and not only because it would be a more period-appropriate mashup. I wonder if they were trying to give Darcy a vampiric edge with all that awkwardly fitting leather? Suffice it to say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike pulled it off with far more panache.
Cailey–One of the reasons I was so excited about the movie is that Elizabeth looks like a Buffy-esque monster hunter!
Zombies are often read as representations of mindless consumption and as a critique of consumerism. Perhaps there’s something to be made of Wickham’s zombie bite as contamination by an increasingly profit-driven society? There was certainly a sense of the common people–“the mob” as being monstrous. Burke describes the mob this way in Reflections on the Revolution in France, for instance, as Mark Neocleous argues in his excellent article “The Monstrous Multitude: Edmund Burke’s Political Teratology.” Perhaps we could read the zombies in the movie as political-economic critique? Or maybe we should just enjoy the brain-eating for what it is.
Caroline, I really enjoyed reading the overview of Romantic-era undead that you’ve laid out for us. I just taught ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ last week and, after reading this, I’m thinking that the ghosts of the shipmates in Coleridge’s poem totally support your point that many Romantic revenants “seem like emanations rather than decaying bodies.” After the mariner’s shipmates drop dead, there’s an allusion to the “rotting deck” where their bodies lie but then, eerily enough, we learn that their bodies aren’t actually decaying—“nor rot nor reek did they.” When the mariner’s dead shipmates do rise (a “ghastly crew”), they seem more like kindly spirits than corpses. And then, of course, all of this is complicated by the delusional quality of the mariner’s entire story, which seems not to be grounded in any ordinary, concrete world that we might recognize.
Cailey, I’m with you in thinking that we can characterize the Wickham in ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ as a corpse-lover. His rakish desires are definitely prominent in the film—before running off with Lydia, there’s that added scene where he tries to cloy Elizabeth, too, into eloping with him. And I’m so amused by your speculation that the filmmakers may have wanted to give Darcy a ‘vampiric edge.’ That this stands as a plausible explanation for the uncouth figure that he cuts further accentuates for me the essential silliness of the whole project.