Two sorts of people: a defence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith

“There are two sorts of people in this world, those who like Jane Austen and those who like zombies. Do not mix.”

The above quote, penned by Mary Jo Murphy in a New York Times list of Jane Austen film adaptations, takes to task the recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s most popular novel; namely, Burr Steers’ big screen version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). Murphy’s sneering dig at the movie is clear: people who like Jane Austen novels, who revel in the mannerisms and propriety of the eighteenth century, are not the kinds of people to be amused by scenes of undead decapitations, warrior training, and Lizzie Bennet dropkicking a zombie.

Which is fine to have as an opinion, if you like your Austen with a side of elitism and snobbery. I’ll admit—the first time I ever heard of Grahame-Smith’s novel, I scoffed. The English postgraduate in me made me do it. And then I read it and I laughed. I laughed throughout the entire book. The combination of two things that should never be combined (namely, an eighteenth century novel of manners with a zombie apocalypse) was so absurd, so comedic that it just worked—Grahame-Smith did an excellent job of weaving in just enough of the zombie plot to make it believable. The entertainment factor was high.

I am, to be honest, a weird combination of someone who reads eighteenth and nineteenth century novels for fun (each of Austen’s novels get a read every year) and someone who would happily cosplay Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine at a comic convention. I’m the kind of person who relishes the gory murders and blood-soaked revenge in Kill Bill and yet attends Austen-inspired Midsummer Regency Balls dressed in a muslin gown and long gloves. I have a wide range of interests and I’m proud of them—they keep life interesting.

The movie takes the zombie shock factor seriously, as any good zombie film should.

To critique a movie by suggesting that one set of interests couldn’t possibly mesh with a different set of interests is to place some very narrow constraints on how we, as humans, are allowed to define ourselves. It’s categorizing us into set stereotypes. And it’s suggesting that one set of interests (the literary) is inherently better, or more highbrow, than the other (zombies)—why else give the movie zero bonnets out of five? Murphy’s harsh critique of the movie labours under the impression that anyone interested in Jane Austen (which assumedly you must be, if you’re reading an article about the best movie adaptations of her novels) couldn’t possibly be a fan of this particular adaptation. Zombies? How pedestrian.

Pride and Prejudice didn’t need a refresh, nor do I think that was the intention of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel or movie. This movie, which so blasphemously combined classic literature and gratuitous gore, is pure entertainment. It takes popular fiction from the Regency period (i.e. novels and romance) and sets it against popular fiction from the 21st century (i.e. action, apocalypse, and braaaains). It’s a refreshing take on pop culture and entertainment and, as a long-time Austen fan from both an academic and entertainment standpoint, I loved it.

Lena Headey. The perfect Lady Catherine de Bourgh for the 21st century.

I mean, what’s not to love? The opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”? Matt Smith (the Eleventh Doctor himself) as his awkward, delightfully campy version of Mr. Collins? Lena Headey being possibly the fiercest Lady Catherine de Bourgh the silver screen has ever seen?

There will undoubtedly be people who love Austen and hated the movie. There will unquestionably be people who can’t tell a Wickham from a Knightley and loved the movie. And there will be those who—shock and horror—thoroughly enjoyed both.

To suggest that people couldn’t possibly like both, based on a highbrow assumption that people who really love Austen must have a certain quality of interests, is an opinion almost as pompous as Caroline Bingley’s extensive list of what makes a woman “truly” accomplished.

“Oh! Certainly. No one can be really esteemed a true Austen lover who does not surpass the lowbrow interests of pop culture fans. An Austen lover must have a thorough knowledge of eighteenth century literature, Regency dress, the pianoforte, Fordyce’s Sermons, and the full and complete works of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to deserve the title; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her level of education and manner of selecting reading material, the tone of her voice when speaking to plebeians, and an address at a middle-class family home in the suburbs, or the title will be but half-deserved.”
Matt Smith fits Mr–sorry, PARSON–Collins to a T.

One of Jane’s great talents was her ability to laugh at the ridiculous—to delight in the elements of society that were absurd and made little sense. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does very much the same thing. It takes two cultural obsessions—dashing Darcy and legions of the undead—and mashes them together in a masterful yet cheeky work of art that stays surprisingly true to the source material while delivering a delightful whirlwind of anachronisms and references to modern pop culture.

Critically, the movie was panned. On the viewer side, however, audiences were surprisingly pleased with how much they were entertained by the movie—even those who were fans of Austen. Perhaps there is a third sort of person, contrary to Murphy’s statement: a three-dimensional person with a wide-ranging multitude of interests. It might be rare to find, of course, since our society so neatly gives us stereotype-driven boxes to hide within, but, if you look very closely down the aisle of your local comic book store or amongst book clubs and film discussion groups, you may just find one or two of these rare specimens. If you do, rejoice. A three-dimensional character is so much more precious than a two-dimensional one.

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