Saturday 20 February 2016

Crucial Questions about the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Film: Answered

This week the Secret Victorianist went to see what should have been this Valentine’s Day’s greatest compromise film (were it not for the clever marketing of Deadpool)—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (hereafter PPZ).

Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 ‘mash-up’ novel, PPZ is fan fic for the big screen, bodice ripping with bite and, potentially, the point at which we reached peak Austen adaptation. In this blog I’ll be covering off the main questions I’m sure you were left asking once the final credits rolled.

Warning: Spoilers abound.

The Bennet sisters, led by Lily James as Elizabeth
What can PPZ tell us about the modern cliché of the strong female protagonist?

Speaking about the inspiration behind his novel, Grahame-Smith said the following:

“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.”

The independence of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet then is central to the conception of PPZ, just as it has been to Pride and Prejudice’s enduring popularity. What’s more, how this comes to life in Lily James’s rendition of the character is more revealing of 21st-century attitudes to the strong female protagonist, than 19th-century ones.

Lizzie is a warrior trained in martial arts, but she hacks the undead to pieces, saves Mr Darcy several times and delivers crushing put downs in Chinese all without a blood splatter to be seen or a hair falling out of place.

She flashes her garters and has no time for riding side saddle but she’s still indisputably virginal, and invested in keeping it that way until she has a ring on her finger and an estate in the bag.

Today’s strong female protagonist must fight with the men, while preserving her sexual allure and virtue. And she must find accord with other strong female characters. Lena Headey’s eye-patch wearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes onside when she sees Lizzie defeat a man double her size in hand-to-hand combat.

Sam Riley as Mr Darcy
What is PPZ’s stance on 19th-century classism?

The undead masses are largely poor—the inmates of overrun orphanages, a group of servants lurking in the kitchens, a terrifying tribe of Cockneys making for the Home Counties.

Early in the film, you might have thought PPZ had the potential to play out as a riotous allegory, an answer to Austen’s elision of issues regarding social justice. You would have been wrong.

The only voice pleading for the zombies is Jack Huston's Wickham—a character who is here even worse than in the original. Wickham—the women kidnapping, benefactor killing, undead-herding maniac, who turns out to have been a zombie all along—argues that the infected need only religious education and a healthy diet of pigs’ brains to keep them in line. But when they get a taste of blood (thanks, Darcy), it all goes wrong.

The only moral I could detect? Feed the starving and you’ll have a rebellion on your hands, show compassion to the people and your beautiful estates will soon be overrun.

Lena Headey as Lady Catherine
What does Lily James’s cleavage tell us about intertextuality in 21st-century costume drama?

PPZ is an homage to other filmic retellings of Austen and to the costume drama genre more widely, regardless of its violence and gore.

Sam Riley’s Darcy has his dive into the lake for absolutely no plot reason (he’s not even interrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth). Lizzie’s dresses are lower cut than those of anyone else in the country—a clear nod to Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 TV adaptation.

And Darcy’s first proposal features a sword fight between the romantic pair that channels the run in between Catherine Zeta Jones and Antonio Banderas in 1998 drama The Mask of Zorro (although here both characters end up in a state of partial undress).

Bella Heathcote as Jane and Lily James as Elizabeth
What makes PPZ a truly radical addition to the zombie canon?

But what if you went to see PPZ as an aficionado of the zombie genre? Does this movie offer anything new?

I’d argue, yes. This is one of the few zombie flicks I’ve seen where no major character dies, something I initially struggled with since Matt Smith’s brilliantly irritating Mr Collins was a clear candidate.

My conclusion? In the world of Regency England the very existence of zombies is enough of a shock factor—the joy here is in seeing how this particular society responds to the infection. Zombies cause problems but they also make the lives of the Bennet sisters a hell of a lot more interesting, while, in our own world, the only difference they would bring is even more widespread destruction.

What did you think of PPZ? What dissertation titles do you think it will inspire in the future? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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