Literary Appropriation, Popular Culture, and Brain-Eating Zombies

pride-prejudice-zombies-001

This paper was written for Prof. Phyllis Betz’s Pop Culture Literature class at La Salle University. It was rushed, it’s not terribly good, but since people want 15 pages on zombies, then by the grace of WordPress, they’ll have 15 pages on zombies. I realized I had nuked this when I nuked my blog and since I didn’t write anything on Friday or Saturday, I’m making up for it now. I’m taking out all the parenthetical citations and just throwing the works cited in a box below, since this thing is a shade under 4,000 words.

Literary Appropriation, Popular Culture, and
Brain-Eating Zombies

A wise sage from the Internet once stated that there were 7 main plots in storytelling: man vs. nature; man vs. man; man vs. the environment; man vs. technology; man vs. the supernatural; man vs. self; and man vs. God. Montana State University Professor Ronald B. Tobias, in his book 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them, increases the number to 20. Italian dramatist Count Carlo Gozzi, according to Georges Polti in the book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, increases the number to 36. Rudyard Kipling is presumed to have had a list of 69 different plots. Cecil Adams, of the syndicated newspaper column The Straight Dope, narrows it down to one:

all stories can be summed up as Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement or to simplify it even further, Stuff Happens, although even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust.

The number of plots in storytelling may be limited, but the amount of stories in the world seems limitless. Since the dawn of the printing press, authors have been transcribing their stories into novels, novellas, magazine installations, Reader’s Digest features, blogs and websites. Authors get ideas from different points in their life, whether it be Edgar Allan Poe and the wicked, dreary conditions of the city of Philadelphia, or J.R.R. Tolkien and the backdrop of the Second World War. Even the best storytellers sometimes run out of creative juices and rely heavily, either consciously or subconsciously, on the abilities of others for the words needed to continue. Famous African-American author Alex Haley, who wrote the novel Roots, settled a lawsuit out-of-court for $650,000 after an author claimed that Haley plagiarized over 80 passages from his novel published 9 years before Roots.

What if, however, a storyteller used an existing work and revised it in such a way to create an entirely new piece? Would it be wrong? Would it serve a purpose? Can a piece that is heavily appropriated from an original source to create a seemingly-new story serve to enhance and clarify the original work? It can. Literary appropriation serves many different functions, including satire and political statements. In the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a 2009 satire of the Regency classic, this appropriation not only creates a new story using a familiar story line, but the changes and additions made to the story help to amplify and clarify the intentions and the meanings behind Jane Austen’s work.

Pride and Prejudice needs little introduction. Written by Jane Austen and published in 1813 to positive reviews, Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet, a middle-class 20-year-old daughter of an English gentlemen in Hertfordshire, England. She is described as having a “lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.” Her main love interest in the book is Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, initially described as a “fine, tall person” with a £10,000 annual salary. After being dismissed by Elizabeth for being cold-natured and proud, the two eventually overcome their pride and prejudices to fall in love. The novel has been adapted into two feature-length films, four theatrical plays, six different television series, and even a Bollywood feature, entitled Bride and Prejudice. The novel includes one of the most well-known opening lines in all of literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains,” starts the first line of the 2009 Regency romance/horror novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Jane Austen shares a byline with Seth Grahame-Smith, whose previous works include such low-brow titles as The Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies and How To Survive a Horror Movie: All the Skills to Dodge the Kills. The book turns from a serious read about love and life into a graphic, violent novel where Elizabeth is not just a young lady who finds love in Mr. Darcy, but rather a martial-arts-trained warrior, trained by her father to fight the undead. The book is more than 3/4ths Austen’s, but Grahame-Smith uses a careful and meticulous understanding of the prose and vocabulary of Jane Austen to almost seamlessly patch scenes of zombie mayhem, vomiting and ninja fighting into the classic romance. With zombies quickly becoming the latest pop culture obsession, it was only a matter of time until a classic story was infected (pardon the pun) with zombies.

Jane Austen is no stranger to retellings of her stories. The 1995 movie Clueless with Alicia Silverstone and Brittany Murphy is based of Austen’s Emma, a story of a slightly spoiled but well-intentioned matchmaker. The 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding (as well as the 2001 film of the same name starring Renée Zellweger) runs many parallels to Pride and Prejudice, which are evident, starting with the name of the male protagonist: Mark Darcy. The 2008 British television series Lost in Austen chronicles a modern-day Austen fan as she finds herself in the role of Elizabeth and her journey out of the story.

Reviews for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are, with few exceptions, positive. The New Yorker‘s Macy Halford had few nice things to say.

“The book effectively undermines the seriousness of, in the original, the Bennet sisters’ matrimonial quest by suggesting a non-linear positive correlation between the number of zombies present during courtship and the degree of difficulty in obtaining a husband.”

(In fairness, Halford reconsiders, after a fan of the book compared it to “an intelligent fart joke.”) The Onion‘s AV Club’s Donna Bowman had nicer things to say.

“What begins as a gimmick ends with renewed appreciation of the indomitable appeal of Austen’s language, characters, and situations, and unbridled enjoyment in the faithfulness with which they have been transformed into the last, best hope of English civilization.”

Throughout careful analysis, the main question raised in the creation of this book is, why was it written? The author himself, in the Discussion Guide located in the back of the book, asks the following:

“Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think?”

The question, restated, looks as such: what benefit does literary appropriation (that is, borrowing other literary elements to create new work) have to the world of literature as a whole?

In the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the appropriation of Jane Austen’s original novel to create a new work of art that moves away from romance and into comedy. The primness and properness that is evocative of Austen’s language is carried over by Grahame-Smith, to a point of hilarity. For instance, in chapter 10 of the story, Elizabeth convinces Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst and Mr. Darcy to continue walking without her. The story changes from Elizabeth excusing herself politely to Elizabeth exercising her will to kill:

“No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Besides, that path is most assuredly rife with zombies, and I have not the inclination to engage in fighting them off to-day. Good-bye.”

One could argue that doing a parody such as this cheapens the art.

However, in order to create and implement an entire sub-plot into an existing, one must not only fully analyze and study the work to be added to, but a full appreciation of the art is needed. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Grahame-Smith shows his appreciation for the novel.

“I did not really give a damn about Elizabeth Bennet and her man troubles [in high school], nor did I have a lot of fun with the run-on sentences and the heavy-duty language.”

After revisiting the book later in life, Grahame-Smith noted “how brilliantly constructed it is, how full the characters are, and most importantly, how sarcastic and even a little mean-spirited Austen was in tearing down the conventions that she disapproved of.” It can be argued that the low-brow addition of zombies into this current-day high-brow piece of literature allows Jane Austen’s story to reach a wider audience.

Parody in modern culture is art created to mock, comment or poke fun at an original work, the work’s subject, author or other target via humor, irony or sarcasm. Literary appropriation takes the words, ideas or plots from one writer and applies parody in order to make another statement. With parody like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the intent was homage. A conversation with a literature scholar yielded this note:

“Loving parody does not inform our reading of source material. Loving parody doesn’t change our opinions; it augments or plays with them, but doesn’t change. Harsh parody””satire””changes opinions.”

Zombies play an important role in popular culture as a form of social commentary, which started in the late 1960s, when George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead hit theaters. Before his zombie film, zombies in film and story were no different than other ghouls in horror films, meant to not just terrorize moviegoers, but to criticize societal problems such as government ineptitude, greed and the war in Vietnam.

“The discovery [by one of the main characters in the film] of a television set not only supplies more information about the zombie attacks but also implicitly condemns a government that is indirectly responsible.”

Other works of media, such as World War Z, a fictional account of a worldwide zombie outbreak by Max Brooks and the Resident Evil video game series, use zombies not only as a plot point of terror, but also as social commentary (in the case of World War Z, the zombies are used as commentary on government ineptitude, corporate corruption and human prejudice. In Resident Evil, the zombies are a direct result of corporate greed). This allows Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to use the zombie device as a means to not only add humor to the story, but to reinforce the plot that Jane Austen originally wrote.

The themes between Pride and Prejudice and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are not as different as one would think. From an interview in Time magazine, Grahame-Smith explains:

“It’s almost as if Jane Austen was subconsciously setting this up for us. You have this sharp-tongued, fiercely independent heroine. It’s not a huge leap to say she’s a sharp-daggered, fiercely independent heroine. And then you have Darcy, on the other side, who’s a pompous and privileged guy. And you say, all right, he’s a pompous and privileged slayer. And that’s how they battle it out with each other.”

The notions of love, reputation and class aren’t lost in the zombified version of the classic novel; in fact, one could argue that the themes are clarified and enhanced with the additions of the unmentionables (apparently, the Regency-era term for the undead), thus not only breathing new life into what some would consider a “dusty novel,” but allowing a new generation of readers, some of whom would be turned off by the higher, eloquent language, to enjoy the story line brought forth by Jane Austen.

The attraction between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are hampered, initially by the pride of Elizabeth and her initial impression of Mr. Darcy. The dry honesty of Austen’s original work is enhanced and clarified in the new zombie-filled text. Mr. Darcy’s cold treatment of Elizabeth went with no further explanation in Austen’s work, but in Grahame-Smith’s text, the initial attraction is hinted at much faster.

“From a corner of the room, Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went. He knew of only one other woman in all of Great Britain who wielded a dagger with such skill, such grace, and deadly accuracy.”

Elizabeth’s catching of Mr. Darcy’s eye in the original text was subtle to the point of being hidden; the expanded zombie scenes in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies not only provide entertainment, but enhance the characters and the exposition of the original novel. Upon Mr. Darcy’s ill treatment of Elizabeth in first ball in Merryton in Chapter 5, her anger is explicit.

“”¦I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine. I dare say I would’ve cut his throat had not the unmentionables distracted me from doing so.”

The role that women play in 19th century English society is a subject that Austen looks at in Pride and Prejudice with a very critical eye. It is clear throughout the novel that Austen believes that women are as intelligent and capable as men, and finds injustice in their inferior status in society. The plot of the novel is intended to show how Elizabeth gains happiness by marrying for love instead of money, unlike money-hungry women like Charlotte. Austen also makes clear what 19th century England feels about women. Mr. Darcy shows this well in Chapter 3:

“I am in no humour at present to give consequence who are slighted by other men.”

Mrs. Bennet also gives shining examples of what role women were expected to play in the Regency era:

“If I can see but one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield”¦and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.”

Middle-class women were expected to marry rich, and rich women were expected to stay rich. Elizabeth, who prides herself in her intellect, refuses to box herself into a marriage for financial gain, but for love instead. In Grahame-Smith’s appropriation of the story, not only does Elizabeth carry an intellectual advantage over most of the females in the story, but her intellect is couples with a fierce knowledge of martial arts and general zombie killing. Chapter 29 in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a showcase of the independent nature of Elizabeth.

“Elizabeth flung her Katana across the dojo, piercing the ninja’s chest and pinning him against a wooden column. Elizabeth removed her blindfold and confronted her opponent, who presently clutched the sword handle, gasping for breath.”

The love that both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth eventually share is strengthened due to both their intellect and their zombie-fighting abilities.

“It could not have been my beauty, or my killing skills, for they are each quite equal to your own,” Elizabeth notes after asking Mr. Darcy why he loves her. Darcy replies:

“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”

Pride is a major theme in the novel; so much so, it slips itself into the title. Elizabeth puts precedent on her intellect and manners over her standing in terms of class in Austen’s novel. Mr. Darcy’s pride lies mostly in his social standing. Sometimes, pride gets in the way of reality, as in the case of Lady Catherine. “There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient,” she says haughtily in Austen’s novel. Lady Catherine’s narcissism leads to nothing but rudeness. The culmination of Lady Catherine’s pride comes in Chapter 56 of the novel, when she tells Elizabeth that the notion of Mr. Darcy marrying her is ridiculous due to her position on the social ladder.

“My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other”¦Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune”¦If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.”

This scene of heated conversation in Austen’s book is frustrating to read. The audacity that someone would deny marriage solely due to social status is maddening, which Jane Austen fully believed. Love should know no bounds. The conversation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth is never resolved to satisfaction: the Lady does nothing more than storm off, while Elizabeth keeps their encounter secret. The eloquence of Austen’s writing hinders the true feelings of both ladies from showing through. Anger, especially interpreted in modern literature, is very clear; in Austen’s work, anger’s burn is more curt and less stinging. However, the zombiefied version of the story makes the anger and animosity between the two women evident.

“Lady Catherine’s eyes widened as she felt a sharp pain in her belly. She let go and stumbled backward, the handle of Elizabeth’s dagger protruding from her gown. The younger took full advantage of this confusion, striking her ladyship about the head, neck and bosom with a severe combination of blows, and a fine kick which drover so high as to shatter two of the wooden rafters overhead.”

The battle in Grahame-Smith’s version of the story climaxed to a draw, but leave the reader with a clear notion that both women understand each other’s points of view, albeit in a humorous and violent manner.

The subtle undertones of personality in the Austen book are amplified to a great degree in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For instance, in the Austen novel, Mr. Collins is an insufferable, pompous (but well-intentioned) dolt. In Chapter 48, Mr. Collins interjects his opinion on the marrying of Lydia to Mr. Wickham by accusing the Bennets of bad parenting. “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this, (Austen 220)” he writes. In Grahame-Smith’s novel, Mr. Collins’s stupidity is amplified to an even greater degree. As Mr. Collins marries Charlotte, Elizabeth notices that Charlotte is in the beginning stages of turning into a zombie. As the novel progresses, Charlotte turns more and more into a savage unmentionable.

“[Mr. Collins] informed them that the whole party was asked to dine at Rosings the next day. Apparently overcome with excitement, Charlotte dropped to the ground and began stuffing handfuls of crisp autumn leaves in her mouth.”

20 chapters later, after Charlotte goes through crippling illness and the loss of the ability to speak, only does Mr. Collins notice his wife has turned into a zombie, but only with the help of Lady Catharine.

“It is my sad duty to report that [Charlotte] is no more with us upon this earth; that she was somehow stricken with the strange plague””an affliction we were all blind to until Lady Catharine de Bourgh condescended to bring it to my attention in a most graceful manner.”

Despite this tragic news, he is still stone-cold stupid in Grahame-Smith’s tale.

“The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of [her marriage to Mr. Wickham], just as the beheading and burning of my bride was a fate preferable to seeing her join the ranks of Lucifer’s brigade.”

A level of fan satisfaction is reached as the last word from Mr. Collins is a note that he will commit suicide.

Satire is ripe in Pride and Prejudice. The attitudes of Regency-era England are exaggerated to almost-ridiculous lengths in the novel, from Mrs. Bennet’s over-eagerness to marry all of her daughters as fast as possible to men who are as rich as possible, to the dishonest nature of Mr. Wickham. Austen uses the preposterous nature of her characters to expose the social shortcomings of England in the late 1700s. Thus, an added layer of even more exaggeration (in this case, exaggeration of setting from Seth Grahame-Smith) further enhances the character’s natures in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennet’s ineffectiveness as the head of the household is highlighted in Chapter 41:

“respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.”

The Zombies version of this turn of events further shows Mr. Bennet’s disdain with his ridiculous wife and hard-to-handle daughters.

“This had been especially arduous during their trips to China, whcih Mr. Bennet had supervised without the company of his wife, and during which he had taken many a beautiful Oriental to his bedchamber.”

What Austen set in terms of character satire, Grahame-Smith amplifies and magnifies.

The function of literary appropriation in the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies seems to be twofold: first, the appropriation is used to provide fans of the work a detailed description of a fanciful, outlandish hypothetical situation (what if Regency-era England was being overrun with zombies but everything else was the same?); second, the appropriation allows readers who would consider the subject matter of Jane Austen boring to reconsider the story with an added hook to initially grab their attention.

Literary appropriation has been used in other forms, for other reasons. Snowball’s Chance by American author John Reed picks up where George Orwell’s Animal Farm leaves off and blasts Orwell’s message of pro-capitalism to smithereens. The Wind Done Gone by African-American novelist Alice Randall is a parody and a historical parallel novel of the classic 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. It retold the plot of the novel from the viewpoint of a mulatto slave on Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation, and offered a new perspective on the classic book by offering the viewpoints of the slaves who were only minor characters at best in the original telling. Both of these books use their appropriated elements in order to make critical commentary on their original works, whether it be a disagreement on basic ideology or an offer of a viewpoint overlooked for almost 60 years. In the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the appropriation was not meant to cause critical thought, but rather to offer appreciation to the keen wit and skill of Jane Austen’s writing. Other types of “loving parody” include Bored of the Rings, a parody of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings written in the late 1960s. The purpose of this kind of careful literary appropriation is to pay honor to the authors being spoofed by keeping the tempo, vocabulary and pacing of the original author’s style intact.

Literature in the modern age has different usage. Novels such as Pride and Prejudice have passed their initial stage of popular literature and have stood the test of time, forever to be labeled as “classics.” They top every “must-read” list and are required reading for every high schooler. As time advances and culture changes, the vocabulary (not to mention attention spans) change, and meaning gets lost. It becomes harder and harder to enjoy the classic stories put forth in classic novels due to their dense, difficult nature. Could the low-brow additions of gimmicks like zombies help to bring high-brow literature to the low-brow masses, without changing the story, plot changes and character development that defines the charming and endearing nature of the original Jane Austen work? In the instance of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the answer is a resounding, and blood-curling, “BRAAAAAINS.”

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Works Cited:

“Alex Haley Should Stop Playing Pretend.” Washington Post 3 June 1989, Final ed., Editorial sec.

Adams, Cecil. “The Straight Dope: What are the seven basic literary plots?” The Straight Dope. 24 Nov. 2000. 26 Apr. 2009 <http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2366/what-are-the-seven-basic-literary-plots>.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice (Bantam Classics). New York: Bantam Classics, 1983.

Bowman, Donna. “Pride And Prejudice And Zombies.” The A.V. Club. 28 Apr. 2009 <http://www.avclub.com/articles/pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies,26559/>.

Grahame-Smith, Seth. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009.

Grossman, Lev. “‘Pride and Prejudice,’ Now with Zombies! – TIME.” Time.com. 28 Apr. 2009 <http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1889075,00.html>.

Halford, Macy. “Jane Austen Does the Monster Mash: The Book Bench: Online Only: The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. 28 Apr. 2009 <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/04/jane-austen-doe.html>.

Kellogg, Carolyn. “‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ by Seth Grahame-Smith” Los Angeles Times. 28 Apr. 2009 <http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-zombies4-2009apr04,0,4685367.story>.

Mehegan, David. “ALICE RANDALL UNCENSORED SPEAKING OUT ABOUT THE DRIVE TO STOP HER FIRST NOVEL, THE AUTHOR SHARES LESSONS FROM WRITING HER SECOND.” The Boston Globe 12 June 2004, Third Edition ed., Living sec.

Personal interview with Mark Costello. Online interview. 27 Apr. 2009.

Smith, Dinitia. “A Pig Returns to the Farm, Thumbing His Snout at Orwell.” New York Times 25 Nov. 2002, New York ed., sec. E: 1.

Tobias, Ron. 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Them). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993.

Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George A. Romero; Knight of the Living Dead (Directors’ Cuts). New York: Wallflower P, 2003.
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