Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Review: The Other and Austen’s Textual Unconscious

Richard Leahy currently teaches as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Chester, and has recently submitted his PhD Thesis entitled ‘The Evolution of Artificial Illumination in Nineteenth Century Literature: Light, Dark and the Spaces in Between.’ His research interests include uses of light in Nineteenth Century Literature, Victorian Consumerism, The Gothic, and Neo-Victorianism. Follow him on Twitter: @RichardLeahyLit

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Review: The Other and Austen’s Textual Unconscious

Theatrical Release Poster (c) Lionsgate

                                                      Theatrical Release Poster
                       (c) Lionsgate, image taken from http://lily-james.com

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016, Burr Steers) is the first major motion picture adaptation of the Quirk Books line of rejuvenated classics – others of which include Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. Author, or re-author in this case, Seth Grahame-Smith, has suggested that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the novel of which the film is based on, was influenced by how suitable the focused world Austen created in the original novel was to a Zombie reimagining:

“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway”.[1]

Criticism of both the novel and its film adaptation has been mixed, with many reviewers focusing on the disparate elements of the novel of manners and the introduction of Zombies to such a setting. It is important to note at this stage that although Pride and Prejudice is not strictly a Victorian novel, published as it was in 1813, it is possible to witness Victorian ideals and early influences on the period and its ideologies. There is a fluidity to the text’s continuing influence from the period of Victoria’s reign to the present day – particularly in the cultural perception of its …And Zombies remake where critics often have difficulty in describing the film without discussing it in Victorian terms. Christy Lemire’s review of the film suggests: ‘The movie Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is predicated on a simple gimmick: It’s Pride and Prejudice… with Zombies. This is a vaguely amusing idea which somehow got stretched out to an entire book, which somehow became a bestseller, which inevitably means it had to be made into a film.’[2] What this article intends to do is to critically reevaluate the film, suggesting ways in which the subtext and nuances of Austen’s original text are reflected in the film, while also examining those disparate strands of tone and theme that do not work together cohesively.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies promises a much more insightful commentary on social othering than it achieves, any powerful allegory becoming more and more confused over the duration of the film. The Zombies, automatically ‘othered’ in their definition, are initially presented as a mass underclass, as they are tellingly given the ability to speak and coordinate in the film – resonant of nineteenth-century unionism. Austen often excised the true working class, as well as urban poverty and class difference, from her very microcosmic view of English gentility. Lionel Trilling, in his essay on Austen’s Emma, states: ‘Any serious history will make it sufficiently clear that the real England was not the England of her novels […] All too often is it confused with the real England, and the error of identification ought always to be remarked’.[3] Austen’s fictional England was one that often elided the social other in favour of a commentary of the manners and morality of the social ‘neighbourhood’. Class is obviously an important facet of Austen’s acerbic commentary, as it still is in …And Zombies, yet her social focus was on the relations of gentrified poverty, a great contrast to the urban poverty and industrial squalor that was invading the true England in this period. Christopher Kent writes:

“All this may seem rather a weight of history to place on a few slender passages from Jane Austen’s novels, but of course, the point is that the novels are not about the industrial revolution: only that being realistic representations from the time and place of the industrial revolution, they cannot avoid it, and it is in fact right where it should be. But what of the French Revolution?”[4]

It is this textual unconscious, the unsaid and unspeakable other, that the Zombies adhere to – at first anyway, as when the film’s narrative unravels towards the end, so does any potentially powerful metaphoric criticism.

The Zombies encapsulate the fear of change, the threat of imbalance to Austen’s idyllic England. They represent the ‘crumbling hegemony’ Terry Eagleton discusses in his analysis of Austen’s snapshot of English gentility: ‘[A] society already shaken to its roots by riots, spy scares, agrarian discontent, economic depression, working-class militancy, the threat of revolution abroad and invasion at home’.[5] These contemporary fears become superimposed over the gothic neo-Victorian reimagining of the novel’s circumstances in the opening narration of Mr Bennet (Charles Dance). In it he establishes the ruin and rule of the country, and explains how ‘From the colonies […] came a virulent and abominable plague’, further suggesting that ‘The French were to blame’ for bringing it to English shores.[6] Immediately, the Zombies are associated with the cultural and social ‘other’ that so threatened the genteel Austen bubble. This foreign threat leads to an even more segregation within Austen’s ‘neighbourhood’ of segmented gentry, as Mr Bennet informs the viewer of ‘The Grand Barrier’ erected around London, ultimately keeping not only the Zombie hordes away, but also the threat of urban industrialism at bay. Elizabeth at one point disparages London in the original Pride and Prejudice, stating ‘I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country, for my part, except the shops and public spaces. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr Bingley?’ By acknowledging the Zombie plague’s foreign origins, while also segregating the industrial and capital power of London, the film sets up the Zombies as an encapsulation of a variable ‘other’. Terry Eagleton provides a coincidentally accurate description of the oblique threat of change in Austen’s original novel which may just as easily apply to Grahame-Smith’s zombified adaptation:

“Nothing could be more ominous, then, than a governing class which is plagued by moral misrule. The custodians of English Culture have become infected by various forms of anarchy, from the disowning of parental authority to the giddy pursuit of fashion, from vulgar self-seeking to heartless economic calculation, from sexual flightiness to the worship of money”.[7]

The physical segmentation of gentrified life, and the excision of the other to peripheral spaces, creates a further gulf between Austen’s envisioned England and the reality of it; the misrule that England falls to under a Zombie epidemic reinforces the perceived threat of the lower classes and foreign revolution to the morality of Austen’s world and characters. This is further reinforced by Darcy adapting his disparaging comment on dancing to cover Zombies, originally reading: ‘Certainly, sir; and [dancing] has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance.’[8] Cultural and social otherness is here exemplified through Darcy’s inference of savagery, something that becomes yet more overt in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as Darcy (Sam Riley) states ‘No, every savage can dance – why I imagine even Zombies could do it to some degree of success’ (14 mins).

The Zombies of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are unique in their abilities when compared to most other examples from film, television and literature. They are not the shambling, mumbling monsters of Dawn of the Dead, nor are they the hyper-fast twenty-first century beasts of 28 Days Later. Instead, these Zombies are able to speak, and as we find out later in the film, can apparently coordinate and organize themselves as a group. This is again reminiscent of the mass social movements of the unions and lower classes that threatened to destabilize centralized aristocratic power in the nineteenth century. Jackson J. Spielvogel suggests that this ‘mass society’ emerged from the ‘new urban and industrial environment […] with it came improvements for the lower classes, who benefited from the extension of voting rights’.[9] The similarity between the Zombies and the unacknowledged impoverished is emboldened by Matt Smith’s Mr Collins, as he says upon encountering a Zombie trap: ‘I must confess, I was unaware that Zombies possessed the required acuity to set such traps. Before we know it, they’ll be running for parliament’ (35 mins.). The Zombies, at least in the first half of the film, are continually established as ‘other’; they are a threat to the traditional upper classes in their number and organization. Aside from their communication skills, they align with Bill Hughes’ definition of the narrative function of the Undead as ‘very visibly what lies outside enlightenment, registering unease with foreigners, sexuality, modernity and women’.[10]

George Wickham (Jack Huston) and Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) in The Church of St. Lazarus

George Wickham (Jack Huston) and Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) in The Church of St. Lazarus

It appears as if we are initially meant to sympathise with these Zombies, although the film loses this compassionate strand towards its resolution. The first Zombie we see talking, who is shot in the head by Darcy while trying to tell Elizabeth something, is later deemed by her to be ‘quite civilised’ (19 mins.). Soon after, as Jane journeys to Netherfield, she encounters a Zombie mother and child, to which she exclaims ‘Merciful God, this cannot be’ (22 mins). The sympathy for the zombies, or the disdain against them, replaces Darcy’s perceived prejudice against those lower than him; indeed, when checking Jane’s wound (caused by her gun backfiring), Elizabeth protests that Darcy’s defect ‘is to be unjustly prejudiced against them.’ (29 mins.). The sympathy we are expected to feel for the Zombies is felt strongly in scenes set in The Church of St. Lazarus, where Wickham tries to convince Elizabeth of the Zombies’ ‘human identity’ (57 mins.). This further relates to Bill Hughes’s writing on the sympathetic aspects of the Undead, as he suggests sympathy ‘may be elicited through the depiction of pitiable, but non-human and barely sentient creatures, or simply through respect for the human beings they once were and for their families. More rarely though, the Zombie is granted autonomy and a voice’.[11] In this scene, sympathy is evoked through the pitiable and excised state of this Zombie communion, Wickham’s pleading with Elizabeth to see them as human, and the Zombies’ voice. The Zombie speaking at the altar intones the biblical proverb ‘The Locusts have no King, yet all of them go forth by bands’ (51 mins.), which further separates them from any kind of hierarchy, and suggests nineteenth century mass anti-establishmentarianism masses, particularly the French Revolution and its regicide. Indeed, after this event, Wickham attempts to persuade Elizabeth to join his cause and help the Zombies by telling her ‘That’s the problem, Aristos feel invincible in their great houses but how wrong they are. Their hubris will be their downfall’ (60 mins.).

The fact that the Zombies are given this autonomy and ability to communicate is at the same time the film’s cleverest and most allegorically ripe idea, while also being the biggest reason it fails to cohesively combine the Austen narrative with its more uncanny aspects. The film forsakes the groundwork put into establishing the Zombies as a pitiable other and a destabilizing influence on aristocratic power, and instead reverts back to traditional Zombie aspects at the climax of the film. Wickham’s revelation that he has always been a Zombie, around an hour and a half in, especially the awkwardly intoned line ‘You fool! I’ve been one of them all along!’ (1 hour, 27 mins) disrupts the value of the Zombies’ representation so far, destroying the subtle critique of the bias against zombies as other, and setting them up as traditional uncanny villains. It is worth noting that in the novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Wickham does not play such an important and action filled role in the denouement, and is instead married earlier to Lydia, soon after suffering an accident and becoming an incontinent quadriplegic. Similarly, in the novel, Mr Collins commits suicide after marrying the secretly zombified Charlotte Lucas, whereas in the film he officiates the join marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth, and Bingley and Jane. This extremely ‘Hollywood’ ending shatters liminal perceptions of humans and zombies as both being morally grey, and instead sets up a clear dichotomy between good and bad, and human and zombie. Andrew Horton suggests that the arbitrariness of happy endings in comic films ‘transforms strife into love’ and imagines that strife was in fact love all along.[12] Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can never truly reconcile its tone after Wickham’s reveal, and suffers from an inconsistency of focus and ideology. The Zombies, who were at first cleverly constructed as a threat to order, reminiscent of those that were so obliquely influential on Austen’s microcosmic image of England, become the starkly evil, mindless killers expected of a filmic tale of good against evil. In fact, the film follows this archetype so vehemently in its latter half that it even includes a comic-book style post-credits sequence of Wickham, one-armed astride a horse leading the Zombies to battle.

_______________

[1] Seth Grahame-Smith quoted in Liz Goodwin, ‘Monsters vs. Jane Austen’ from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/03/31/monsters-vs-jane-austen.html (31/3/2009) [accessed on 23/3/2016]

[2] Christy Lemire, Review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies-2016 (5/2/2016) [accessed on 23/3/2016]

[3] Lionel Trilling, ‘Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen’ in Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (New York: Viking, 1965) p. 32.

[4] Christopher Kent, ‘The Big Bow-Wow of Social Change’ in Issues of Class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, ed. Claudia Durst Johnson (Detroit: Greenham Press, 2009) p. 83.

[5] Terry Eagleton, ‘Changes in Class Structure and Values’ in Issues of Class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, p. 93.

[6] Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, dir. Burr Steers (Lionsgate, 2016) 6 mins. All further references to this source will be made in the body of text.

[7] Terry Eagleton, ‘Changes in Class Structure and Values’ in Issues of Class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, p. 94.

[8] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: Penguin, 1994) p. 22.

[9] Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 8th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2012) p. 484.

[10] Bill Hughes, ‘Legally Recognised Undead: Essence, Difference and Assimilation in Daniel Waters’s Generation Dead’ in Open Graves, Open Minds, eds. Sam George and Bill Hughes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013) p. 246.

[11] Bill Hughes, ‘Legally Recognised Undead: Essence, Difference and Assimilation in Daniel Waters’s Generation Dead’, p. 248.

[12] Andrew Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991) p. 137.

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One response to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Review: The Other and Austen’s Textual Unconscious

  1. Interesting post – thanks for sharing! I wonder if you think the lack of clear symbolism with regard to this film’s zombies has anything to do with the multifaceted nature of the contemporary monster (and contemporary Gothic) more generally. Fred Botting, I know, has described 21st-century Gothic as ‘everywhere and nowhere’.

    I’ve done my own review of the film that focuses more on its feminist politics (http://angelsandapes.com/review-pride-prejudice-zombies-2016/), mainly because I’m still not sure what I actually think about the film’s use of zombies.

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