Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Guest Post: Erin Horáková on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Please join us in welcoming Erin Horáková, who is here today to discuss the book/film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Erin is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time. She blogs at Charmed Life. -G 

I stared at the Facebook message in horror. Had a uni friend truly linked me to the trailer for the (inevitable) film of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the assumption that I would be pumped about this? Had she, in her sweet innocence, failed to notice that I am a hideous snob put on this earth to roll my eyes at the ‘classic novel and SFnal creature’ book trend? WAS MY BRAND INVISIBLE? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was the last film on earth I would ever be willing to watch.

But as Austen teaches us, no plan survives contact with one’s sisters. Meghan was born ten years after me because god thought that up until then I’d had it too easy. Twenty years later she sat sulking through our low-key Halloween celebrations, and I felt guilty for dragging her prematurely into my fogeyish idea of a hot night (I had a roast dinner and a full-length black mourning veil to lunge out at trick-or-treating children in—what more could be wanting?). She suggested we watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and apparently I am slightly more prone to guilt even than to pretentiousness, because I agreed to let that happen in my home.

It was better than I expected it would be, at least in some ways. The serious threat the zombies represent in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has given the Bennet sisters a bit more of a common cause, and the altered way they interact in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is winning. Matt Smith’s Mr Collins (the Bennet sisters’ obnoxious cousin and the heir to their family’s money) is a delight. The fact that Moffat Who pretty entirely spoiled Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor is honestly one of Moffat’s greatest blunders (and there are so many entries in contention for the title). As an actor, Smith (who has Jon Pertwee’s sense of comedic timing, and his somehow not at all conflicting capacity for gravitas) deserved so much better.

I’m quite charmed by the well-executed decision to make Lady Catherine (Darcy’s obnoxious aunt, who wishes she were in control of the whole of their family’s money, and could thus make people fall in line with her plans with greater alacrity) more friend than foe. In P&P&Z, she’s an epic swordswoman who’s lost an eye facing zombie hordes. It’s a Dickensian gesture: if Shakespeare is Dickens’ authorial dad, then Austen is his mom,* and he inherited her habit of paying attention to how economics play out in social dynamics and her enjoyment of absurd people. But he loves his grotesques, and half the time he can’t help himself from coming back around and bailing them out, dusting them off and offering them back up to the audience as reformed Goodies, to delight in as he does. The impulse to Save Lady Catherine because she is preposterous and thus fun is somewhat back-read from later audiences’ period-drama familiarity with him. I think Lady Catherine rehabilitations owe something to Copperfield’s Aunt Betsey, directly or in-.

[*Despite the irritating time (circa Nickleby, to Forster (because of course)) he claimed to have not yet read her. Austen’s Victorian popularity only jumped sharply in 1870, the year Dickens died, due to her nephew publishing a very popular biography of her.]

Austen herself could only really be said to evince this recuperative impulse in the case of the protagonist of Northanger Abbey, or possibly with the eponymous protagonist of her early novella, Lady Susan. But neither treatment works in quite the same Dickensian ‘spare your darlings’ way as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’s reformation. Nor is a desire to harness the formidable Lady C for the forces of good unique to this Pride and Prejudice adaptation. The loose but amazing 1940 Pride and Prejudice script by Aldous Huxley (yes, this actually happened, and no, no one can explain why—all the dry, factual ‘needed the money’ reasons in the world cannot amount to the Reason This Happened) similarly saves her, making her a cantankerous but wily, complicit matchmaker. Precedented or no, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ ‘you’ve heard of Lady Catherine?’ flash-away to the woman herself atop a pile of corpses is gold. Yeah we have, fam.

After an introductory scene in which Darcy attends a party and does his zombie-hunting job (but not quite well enough), and then everyone at said party dies in a zombie attack right after he leaves (more on this later), we come to a belated but well-done expository opener. Oh snap, it’s backstory conveyed via a toy theatre! Nineteenth-century toy theatres are amazing, and it’s great to see this period piece brought back as a staging mechanism! The illustrations are a bit pre-Punch and thus feel spot on, though I think of the device itself as more quintessentially mid- to late-Victorian, so it was slightly jarring for me in this context. But listen, almost nothing in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes a lick of period sense, so this is small beer.

Perhaps more importantly, this opener sets the zombie invasion in the context of empire. Britain’s growing imperial power is here phrased as ‘trade’, and the zombie plague is presented as something brought back via those exchanges. That renders this zombie epidemic almost a reboot of the 14th century Black Plague. There are, however, a couple of problems with this: we don’t get so much as a mention of what’s happening in Asia (if this plague even has the same initial vector—there are in-story reasons to suspect it doesn’t), or on the continent, etc. This is incredibly irritating, because this movie is global enough in scope that the absence of this information nags at me. These questions are relevant to the plot’s stakes and mechanics.

Second, it’s late in the game to describe the interactions by which this plague arrived with an ‘egalitarian trade’ model. By this point in history Britain was starting to go full East India Company, which was less ‘multicultural trading post’ and more ‘site of atrocities and hellish vision of the coming power of industrial capitalism’. The zombies are thus, implicitly, an ‘Empire Writes Back’ affair. Which would be fascinating, if we got into it, but we don’t really. Instead we get an odd Orientalism en passant: accomplished society women train to fight zombies in monasteries in Japan or China. They then, for Reasons Unknown, come home from these possibly safer (?) lands to this cursed plot, this upturned earth, this zombie-ridden realm, this England. Pretty clearly, regency ladies just know kung fu now because bitchin’.

‘Isn’t it cool though, for women in the past to just be kick ass in retellings?’ I don’t know, isn’t that kind of a shallow, awkwardly appropriative, unthreateningly lean-in White Feminism that doesn’t accidentally ignore wider social implications so much as have to ignore them because it’s a relentlessly anti-systematic, obfuscating placebo for real change?

There’s no real mention of what the men do in this regard, or why local fighting schools haven’t been established, or how this monastic training affects gender norms (or the women’s Anglicanism). You may think that’s a ridiculous ask, but we’re sitting here in an adaptation of a novel that is all about the psychology of social structures, which retains and relies on a lot of that novel’s tensions. Yet none of these new elements have been thought through and integrated into the network of questions from which the romantic energies of this adaptation’s plot are still derived.

The timeline and geography of this invasion are major plot points, and yet they make no sense. So the aristocrats holed up in London, built a big wall around the city, then trickled back out? The logistics of this elude me—they built it while under attack? From what direction, Portsmouth? But never mind. More importantly, a major metropolitan area was comparatively safe from a plague for the first time in history? What happened to the peasants outside this Attack on Titan wall? If the peasants died, who the hell made and is making food, and what the hell use is aristocratic money if grain production got wiped out? Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century called, it has some medieval realness to serve you about labour, class and rising wages after a ton of agricultural workers suddenly die.

I am baffled as to why the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ writer (I apologise if he was better here, but I doubt it: I’m not reading this book myself to find out for sure, y’all die on your swords if you feel like it) and/or the film team didn’t want to do the work to figure this stuff out. Isn’t that—the most interesting part? Of this process? Yes, it’s a one-joke gag book (that spawned a trend, made an obscene amount of money and generated a film adaptation, so whatever it started as: here we are!), but who could help themselves from sitting down and working out the alternate history consequences of Georgian England with Zombies? You could even retain the original plot pretty tightly—like, go do something else for an hour, come back, and I’ll have a plot outline for this. It’s not just not hard, it’s irresistible as a cursed gong in Charn, and yet this film does not ring that gong and I literally cannot understand why.

Georgette Heyer would have written a much more fun version of this book, I am just saying.

The world-building never quite works, and thus the ways it increasingly derails the plot of the original novel get weirder and worse as the film ramps up to its shaky, unsatisfying finale. Wickham was a zombie all along, because. He wanted to become Zombie King, which is a Thing, because. He still abducts Lydia, here unromantically, because. Some pretexts are given, but I will not insult you by relaying these. Everything with Dastardly Wickham and the Intelligent Zombies is poorly done (good band name, though).

The end sequence involves Darcy quasi-murdering a few hundred sentient zombies by reducing them to an animalistic state. These zombies were abstaining from consuming human brains in order to keep hold of their personalities and to prevent their full transformation. Darcy snuck some of the real deal into their communion wine (they’re clinging hard to religion in order to maintain their sense of humanity) to test their degree of control. They failed his test en masse.

There’s not much reason for Darcy’s doing this, and that’s—totally not moral, as well as being actively and pointlessly dangerous for himself and others? I mean, perhaps he was trying to get rid of these zombies’ sentience so that they couldn’t control other zombies, as they have some power to do, and harness the unintelligent zombie hordes as a killing force. But we don’t get much evidence that this whole community (including half-zombified children) had any intention of doing that. It’s not even a threat the protagonists lay out as a motivation. It seems like the story’s Evil Plan might just have been Zombie Wickham’s gig. In which case, even in this pacey action film, murdering a parish should have given Darcy some pause, even if it was for the greater good. His transition from landowner to military man has made him, if anything, less conscious of his responsibilities towards others: a dangerous way of thinking about power and violence. And responsibility towards others was always Darcy’s lynchpin as a character—the thing he had from the beginning that constituted his inner core of decency, the thing he failed to demonstrate among strangers, and the thing he reaffirms his commitment to and enlarges his definition of in order to emerge from the novel as a more mature person and ‘win’ his plot objectives/become a man Elizabeth can love.

While the new plot doesn’t cohere, the adaptation also puts a great strain on the original romance. Underlyingly, Darcy and Elizabeth are no longer mistaken about certain aspects of how to view the world and in need of learning and growth, both in themselves and towards one another. P&P&Z is like a version of North and South where Thornton just moves to the City and starts stock trading, and Margaret’s down for it. The fundamentals of Pride and Prejudice-ness are out of joint. Given the gravity of the external threats, the misunderstandings in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies don’t quite have the space to blossom into a vast Sleeping Beauty thorn-barrier of awkwardness that the characters nonetheless manage to overcome, as per the original. The adaptation’s plot doesn’t take advantage of its new structure to build in good replacements for these lost components. You know what’s a really good model for adapting Pride and Prejudice to a structure with additional external conflicts, especially if you’re already drawing on the mid-century work of Dickens and Friends? Especially given the over-abundant critical comparisons between zombies and the poor? It’s Elizabeth Gaskell’s regional novel/industrial action thinkpiece/romance, North and South. To be shallower, in part Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' romance also plops wetly on the ground like the flesh a zombie tears through and discards in its relentless quest for brains because this Darcy is so shite and charmless, and has two, three facial expressions tops. A static picture of Colin Firth in the 1997 adaptation, with some new dialogue read over it like a visual novel, would have been more emotive.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' well-paced and not insultingly bad, exactly, but the romantic structure’s collapse is indicative of how, in general, the adaptation is pretty insipid. Take our opening voiceover. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than in the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which an entire household was slaughtered by a horde of the living dead during a whist party.” That’s gone from a cute observation to just—a statement, and the follow up line just makes me angry, because it is so bad. How is this so bad? It’s because the writer never actually understood the prose of Austen’s novel and what it was doing, at a basic, functional level. This is some tin-ear, ‘never read a period novel in my life’ bad steampunk business. Why do people do this?

Oh they’re literally fighting during Darcy’s first bungled proposal. Because they’ve got like, animosity. They’re fighting, now. With kung fu. Like Kung Fu Hustle, but with a very limited sense of humour. I get it. The lighting is that Twilight ‘blue tights over the lens’ affair that makes things look Serious and Grim and Like There’s About To Be A Tornado in The Total Absence Of Appropriate Weather Conditions For That.

This Mr Bennet is super concerned with risks to his daughters’ lives, which, fair, but I’m not sure why he’s suddenly so woke to this given that Mr Bennet’s being too philosophical and go-with-the-flow is the whole problem of his character. It’s his entire personality in the original novel, and the driving engine behind his attitude towards the family’s problematic inheritance situation and his inattentiveness regarding Lydia, which endangers all his daughters and sees Lydia (whether she immediately understands it or not) screwed forever. Mrs Bennet was in some ways right: it really is fucking imperative to get all these daughters married off, and the plot absolutely rescues this family in Lydia’s deliverance and in Jane and Elizabeth’s unlikely good marriages. So why, even in the adversity of a zombie attack, given that the family always had serious problems their patriarch refused to deal with, would Mr Bennet be characterised by vigilance—more so than many of his contemporaries? He’s not an idiot (though most of the people in this film seem to be, playing fast and loose with established zombie protocol despite recurring evidence of the threat (curiously no one we see is grieving or traumatised in the wake of these events, which helps the plot zip along but neutralises audience investment in the threat)), but that’s so not him.

The feebleness of the adaptation is my whole issue with this book trend. This? Is a garden variety fanfic idea. Everyone has written a Pride and Prejudice fusion. I’m not even implicating myself as an eater of sour grapes to say that I have, because your nan’s written one at this point. And a lot of them are better than this. It’s a matter of preserving plot energies, or replacing them with something with at least equal weight—shifting the structure to accommodate your changes. And this? Is but a meh execution, a fumbled telling of a tale as old as time. I could have more fun perusing Derbyshire Writer’s Guild than paying to see this film. I have done, many a time. Only this fic’s by a boy, and done for profit. You can even win a Nobel for mediocre fanfic, provided you’re ‘giving under-served minorities voices in the canon’ as a white male, working in a female-developed medium, recycling its strategies (I am never over how much I hate the reception of Coetzee’s Foe—I know the Nobel is really more of a collective lifetime achievement award than For A Given Book, but Coetzee’s Foe-based acceptance speech strongly associates Foe with this recognition). If you’re Updike, Gertrude and Claudius sells decently. If you’re Shakespeare’s Sister, as it were, you’re off on an lj com, probably this_england or shakespearekink. (Yes, still—Tumblr hasn’t necessarily been great for Shakespeare or many other non-mega fandoms.)

It’s just such a common and depressing occurrence. Very little about these assignments of recognition and reward are about differences in how good the people involved are. I don’t begrudge the P&P&Z guy his money, exactly, but I do want it understood that the confidence to approach a press agent with this, that agent’s acceptance of the idea, the marketing and its success are all gendered as hell, and that this book and film are a weak joke, feebly delivered.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is Amateur Hour, if you read it as fanfic. It doesn’t work as horror. I was never scared, either in the moment (and I am easy for a jump scare) or more conceptually and substantively. It’s mediocre, considered as action. It doesn’t work as romance. It’s a bit more fun as science fiction, though the premise is ludicrously under-explored and the plot, as it comes to us, is jumpy as a jackrabbit. The zombie comedy vein (which includes titles such as Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, etc.) has been mined more professionally. Same for parody, really. It is, to the best examples of the zombie story in all its guises, as solitary Old Man Jenkins the gold-panner with his farmed out claim is to industrial mining operations. Occasionally Old Man Jenkins turns up a nugget, but by and large he spends his days chafed by howling winds that seem to embody his regret for all the mistakes he’s made in his life, all the choices that led him here, to this. He will die alone, and no one in five years’ time will ever turn to anyone else and say, ‘hey, want to watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?’