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austen, we have a problem
re-invent the classics, or leave them be?
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
pop culture

I’ve got nothing against zombies. I just don’t want to see them at Pemberley.

It’s not coming out until next month, but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is already making quite a stir in literary circles. By “making a stir” I mean “plucking every string on the spectrum between amusement and outrage”.

If you’ve never heard of the book, it’s really all there in the title. It’s the entire book of Pride and Prejudice, all the lovely Jane Austen characters and plotting and delight… but in between bits, Darcy and Elizabeth also happen to be trained zombie hunters. So there’s Bingham and Lydia and whathaveyou. But our two chief lovebirds, in between balls and misunderstandings, mostly they go splattering braaaaaains across the countryside.

No thanks.

Classics get revisited all the time. As they should. One of the funniest things about the constant re-interpretations of Shakespeare (WWII Richard III! Zydeco Tempest! High School Othello!) is that Shakespeare himself was re-interpreting and re-assembling scores of plots and characters from existing works. So wouldn’t he approve of revisiting these stories again, and shaping them into something new that’s relevant to a new audience? Especially if there was money to be made? You bet he would.

Modern re-inventions of classics can be beautiful, wonderful, mind-expanding works. They can be fun and fabulous, like “Wicked” and “Clueless”. They can be dark and lovely, like Wide Sargasso Sea and March and Finn. They can be huge and grand like “Mourning Becomes Electra” or flat-out goofy like Strange Brew.

But here’s the important thing. A “re-invention” should still be an invention. It needs to do one of two things: give us a new view of the original work, or hit a bullseye on modern society. New stage interpretations of Shakespeare or other classic playwrights tend to do the former. Recently a theatre company in Philadelphia staged a new version of “Hedda Gabler” wherein Hedda’s lover was also a woman, making Hedda a lesbian unable to live how she wanted in her own time. That was a new spin on the character. It gave Hedda something else to be angry about, another reason to resent her husband, another reason to feel trapped. So: a re-invention. Mostly the same text and same characters, but a spin that invests the play with new, different meaning.

As for the bullseye on modern society, that’s harder. “Clueless” did it: take that timeless matchmaking plot and that timeless meddling character from “Emma”, but transform everything else about the story to make it twinkle in the materialistic, shallow subculture of a sunny California teen princess. Take the timeless and put it in our time. That’s what a real re-invention should do.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? That’s not invention. That’s marketing. Brand recognition. An author who wants to blend zombies and Regency romance could just write a story about Regency characters killing zombies, but it probably wouldn’t stir much controversy, and it might be hard to market. The name recognition on Pride and Prejudice kicks this into a whole new gear. (Which is probably why there’s also a film script making the rounds out there called “Pride and Predator”. Not only is there nothing new under the sun, but sometimes there’s too much of it at the same time.)

But in my opinion, zombies and Regency romance don’t really belong together. There’s nothing about one that gives us a better or more interesting lens on the other. It’s not because they’re dissonant concepts. People cram dissonant concepts together all the time. And maybe it’s just because I’ve watched the entire series in the last week, but Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” stands as the perfect example of this to me. It’s a space Western. And if space and Westerns sound dissonant, they’re really not: the characters are semi-outlaws cruising around a big dark frontier, threatened by the other wild things that live beyond civilization, living by their wits rather than sitting pretty in a cityscape where they don’t belong. It’s a jamming-together that really, really works. Not least because Whedon and his creative team are masters of plotting and character. There’s so much there beyond the concept.

Add that to the list of things a re-invention needs, then. It needs to go beyond. If it’s just the original with a few tweaks, that’s not worth it. I remember seeing a race-reversed staging of “Othello” in Washington, D.C., with Patrick Stewart in the title role. Was it good? Sure. Was it anything beyond the original? Not really.

Will Pride and Prejudice and Zombies go beyond? Me, I’m not holding my breath.

If you need me, I’ll be working on my script for “How to Bury a Billionaire”. If you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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sarah ficke
3.4.09 @ 9:25a

Excellent points, Jael. If all it contains is the Austen novel with chapters of zombies in between, then it's a lazy attempt at reinterpretation.

It's also kind of funny because Austen explicitly rejected the supernatural (in Northanger Abbey). She didn't mind reading gothic horror novels, but she seemed to believe that there were enough real horrors in the petty every-day world around her to write about.

daniel castro
3.4.09 @ 1:50p

Funny you mention Shakespeare because the first thing I thought of when I started reading this was Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo and Juliet.

sarah ficke
3.4.09 @ 3:36p

Not Gnomeo and Juliet?

brian anderson
3.4.09 @ 4:01p

Or, in a completely different vein, Tromeo and Juliet? (I see that Wikipedia claims the genre is "transgressive comedy.")

brian anderson
3.4.09 @ 4:16p

Um...by the way, if you're easily offended by shock value, don't look up T&J.

jael mchenry
4.13.09 @ 11:27a

Apparently any non-new non-idea is worth not having twice: same guy just sold the rights to his next novel, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

sarah ficke
4.13.09 @ 9:42p

Huh, maybe I should jump on the bandwagon with "Harriet Tubman: Werewolf Exterminator."

sarah ficke
5.1.09 @ 11:42a

There is a haiku review of P&P&Z over at Dear Author, and it captures my feelings quite well (no, I still haven't read the book).

jael mchenry
5.1.09 @ 11:32p

Great review... still makes me sad, this whole thing. And now I don't know which is worse: the P&P&Z guy who jams two random ideas together for marketing's sake, or the person who jams together two slight twists on those same random ideas to follow in his footsteps. From Publishers Marketplace, a recent book deal:

Janet Mullany's THE IMMORTAL JANE AUSTEN, a humorous novel about Jane Austen in Regency England who joins the vampire resistance in Bath when England is invaded by French forces, to May Chen at Harper, in a nice deal, in a two-book deal, by Lucienne Diver of The Knight Agency (world).


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