Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sometimes the Movie is Better than the Book: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813), and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

Omitted: The novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ("The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!" 2009) by Jane Austen for the "Classic Regency Romance" and Seth Grahame-Smith for the rest, and its prequel and sequel by Steve Hockensmith.

            In the background for my writing here are, first, my experience as a Ph.D. candidate in early British literature, specializing in Shakespeare, and, second, a rail vacation in the US West during which I took a small step in filling some gaps in my education by reading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield Park (published 1814).

            At Cornell and the University of Illinois (Urbana) in the second half of the 1960s, part of the initiation into Shakespeare studies including reading a number of Shakespeare's sources, and with few exceptions the Elizabethan equivalent of "the movie" — Shakespeare's plays — are far better than "the book": Shakespeare's non-dramatic sources. Indeed, the only exceptions that come to mind are Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra barging down the Nile "upon the river of Cydnus" (Ant. 2.2.187-227 f.) and Shakespeare's character of Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III. Enobarbus's speech, "The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, / Burn'd on the water" is largely a versification of Plutarch's prose, and if it's artistically superior to Plutarch's lines — Shakespeare was very good at writing verse — Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans does have a millennium and a half of priority. And Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester/Richard III is better than the character in Shakespeare's sources in the Chronicles, but not in the parts from the 1513 History of King Richard the Thirde, probably written by Sir Thomas More. "All art is theft" in one way or another — a totally original work would be largely unintelligible — and Shakespeare appropriated and made his own the brilliant hatchet job of Tudor propaganda that produced the monstrous Richard the Thirde of the History. Shakespeare's Richard is a great villain, but Sir Thomas More, or an equally talented Tudor propagandist, was there first.
            There are other exceptions, I'm sure, but until someone argues cogently that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is nowhere as good as Arthur Brooke's much more developed and plausible poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) — I'll stick with my general preference for Shakespeare's plays.
            I'll also note, from this background in early BritLit the irony of the snobbery of assuming "the book is [always] better than the movie." In many cases "the book" is a novel, and it took a goodly while for "The acceptance of novels as literature": i.e., accepting novels as respectable literature, let alone some sort of epitome of narrative achievement.

            Coming from a background in Shakespeare, I had no problems with the mildly satirical comedy of manners of Pride and Prejudice featuring landed gentry who generally lack jobs (the essence of gentility lying in avoiding crassly productive labor, however much energy might be expended in military operations, scholarship, music, and/or needlework). What got to me on that long train ride was something that Vladimir Nabokov may have priority on spotting. In Mansfield Park, the plot requires getting the family patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram off-stage for a while, and as far as I could see it didn't matter where he was sent by the author off-stage to. Where Austen sends him to his plantation in Antigua, in the West Indies, the main source of Bertram family income. Austen mentions this, and then has the novel's protagonist, Fanny Price ask Sir Thomas about the slave trade, and then, with Sir Thomas's silence, pretty much drops the issue. And I hit the low ceiling of my roomette on the train. I hadn't read much about what should be called blood sugar, but I had a vague idea that Antigua in the West Indies would be like Barbados at least later, with a horrendous history of slavery.
            I later learned that this issue in Mansfield Park had been raised by Edward Said and others and recently saw it discussed elegantly by Diane Capitani (2002); and I saw the issue of slavery raised memorably and movingly in the 1999 Mansfield Park film, with script and direction by Patricia Rozema.
            Rozema can be faulted for imposing her agenda over Austen's in a film that profited from the fame of Austen's work: "The plot changes the moral message of Austen's novel, and makes the story a critique of slavery rather than a conservative critique of the 'modern,'" as the Wikipedia entry asserts. I will not engage in such "faulting," however, and assert instead that Rozema's Mansfield Park holds the ethical high ground over Austen's — and resolves an esthetic "crux" in the novel — and that far the film is better than the book.

            Pride and Prejudice and Zombies lacks the high seriousness of Rozema's Mansfield Park and, arguably on the plus side, Rozema's earnestness. Still, adding the zombies brings in — figuratively, indirectly — social concerns absent in the novel, and does so while giving more than fair warning that this Pride and Prejudice will differ in important ways from Austen's.
            And here I will need to bring in an idea that may seem strange to people not on fantasy and horror ListServs: that it is a cliché of horror analysis, but a true one, that "Zombies Verses [sic] Vampires" = "The Elite Verses [sic] the Masses." I.e., reliably since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), film zombies have been creatures moving in groups, threatening to over-run the living and associated with "mass man," a point made quite consciously and with sardonic humor in Romero's follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978), where all-American zombies converge apocalyptically on a suburban shopping mall.
            Adding the zombies to Pride and Prejudice figuratively foregrounds, or at least (ahem) unearths concerns left in the background or relegated to subplots in most romantic comedies of the genteel and on up the figurative good chain to noble, royal, or generally aristocratic — or at least rich — elites. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't give zombies much of a voice (listen to Warm Bodies [2013] for that, or read the novel); still, it simultaneously gives the (ahem again) Wretched of the Earth presence on screen and presents questions of war and peace that are a loud silence in Austen's novel.
            Additionally, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies tells its story in 107 minutes, provides a good deal of gory fun, and presents female leads who both embody and send-up the macha, kick-ass female hero with things on her mind beyond finding a rich husband: however inevitable and oppressing the necessity of "marrying well" was with non-rich gentlefolk generally, and especially with those who could fall in status from lady to mere woman.

            All in all, if we must have another film of Pride and Prejudice, there's much to be said for the zombie version, especially — not really a SPOILER!!! here — especially given the fairly standard horror ending allowing that, after the credits roll, the zombies may complete their revolution and literally, as the joking slogan has it, Eat the Rich.

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