Jane Austen Conquers the World

(This is a paper I wrote for a comparative literature class a little over seven years ago. I am posting it on my blog as an attempt to attract my mother as a reader of this blog. I have been telling her for years I would bring her a copy of this particular piece of writing and have failed to do so. I have done some very minor editing and added Amazon and article links to the works cited list, but this is 99% what I wrote all those years ago. Enjoy)

May 15, 2012

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has got to be one of the most widely known novels in the English language (I don’t really know for sure as I am a Public Administration major and have little time for fiction). I was aware of the general plot before I started this project and regarded the book as a classic; that is a book that many people talk about but never read. In fact, I didn’t realize how well I did know the book; in doing my research I unwittingly discovered that the novel seems to be the basis of a multitude of romantic comedy movies that I have, unfortunately and oftentimes against my will, been dragged to see over the years.

 

The basic plotline: girl meets boy whom she initially dislikes, girl discovers another boy who appears to be a much better match whom original disliked boy intensely hates, disliked boy manages to win the grudging respect of girl while simultaneously proving ostensibly better boy to be a cad, then confusion and miscommunication postpone the inevitable union of girl and originally disliked boy in the bliss of true love. This plot has been done in movies and television ad nauseum (I would assume this would apply to the theater as well, but again I do not know). I have seen it happen in real life, though never in circumstances as complicated as those presented in the novel or in a movie.

Unmentionable Invaders

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains” (Austen and Grahame-Smith 7). These are the opening words of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, the “expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austin novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem,” (back cover).  I hardly think I need to remind anyone that these opening lines echo the better known, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen 1).

 I guess an obvious question to ask is why anyone would want to drop zombies into Pride and Prejudice in the first place. Zombies are big business in the United States these days.  Though no time frames are given, the value of Zombie related goods and services such as movies, video games, books, costumes, conventions, numerous others are estimated to be worth as much as $5.74 billion (Ogg). The value of these zombie related diversions is expected to grow in 2012 (Ibid.) Bosch posits that the interest in zombies is related to current economic conditions that are stoking white collar financial fears. She writes,

In The Walking Dead, the strongest survivors come from blue-collar backgrounds—cops, hunters, mechanics. Perhaps the weakest of the band is Andrea, a former civil rights attorney who can’t be trusted with a gun and who is overly indulgent in grieving her sister, a college student, who wasn’t alert enough while peeing in the woods and got bit for her neglectfulness. In the zombie apocalypse, your J.D. is worthless—which is actually not so different from the real world of recent years.

Further, zombies have no romantic possibilities. Bishop writes,

Unlike many other tales of terror and the supernatural, the classic zombie story – i.e., the apocalyptic invasion of out world by hordes of cannibalistic, contagious, and animated corpses –  has remarkably specific conventions that govern its plot and development. These generic protocols include not only the zombies themselves and the imminent threat of a violent death, but also a post-apocalyptic backdrop, the collapse of societal infrastructures, the resurgence of survivalist fantasies, and the fear of other surviving humans. (19)

Despite the association of zombies with the apocalyptic breakdown of society, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the gentility and manners never differ from the characters in Pride and Prejudice; the zombies prove to be merely another nuisance to be dealt with, one more twist. Society is not collapsing. For example, the ball where the characters Elizabeth and Darcy meet is attacked by zombies, “A few of the guests, who had the misfortune of being too near the windows, were seized and feasted on at once” (14). The party ends on the following note, “Apart from the attack, the evening altogether passed off pleasantly for the whole family” (16).  Though I suppose this could be considered ironic, over the course of the book this particular quirk gets boring.

While reading Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, I was reminded of a particular review I read of the 2001 film, “Le Pacte Des Loups.” Phipps wrote of that movie, “Sure to be the year’s best film to mix martial arts, 18th-century European costume drama, historical allegory, and horror…” Later he writes, “[the director] doesn’t so much erase the lines between his chosen genres as pretend they never existed.” In this book the martial arts are accorded respect on the same level as wealth or an aristocratic title. “The demonstration took place in Lady Catherine’s grand dojo, which she had paid to have carried from Kyoto, brick by brick, on the backs of peasants. The ninjas wore their traditional black clothing, masks, and tabbi boots.” Once ninjas were introduced I lost all interest in the story. Though I was reminded of the quotes about “Le Pacte Des Loups,” this book does not as successfully pull off its attempt to mix a very similarly disparate set of elements.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesis overwhelmingly inane. In piling on childish ideas and incongruent devices Grahame-Smith manages to turn a ridiculously intriguing idea into a craptacular failure. In contemplating this book I am reminded of what Gamal Abdel Nasser said about Americans, “The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make the rest of us wonder at the possibility that we might be missing something.” What is more American than wretched excess?

No Life Without Wife

If you were to take Elizabeth Bennet and her family and friends a couple of hundred years into the future and transport them about 4,000 miles to Amritsar in Northwestern India (I believe a black hole might be useful in this endeavor), AND turn Elizabeth into a fiercely proud Indian woman, you might end up with a woman very much like Lallta Bakshi, the heroine of Bride and Prejudice, played by Ashwarya Rai.  The translation of Pride and Prejudiceinto a Bollywood movie is, thankfully, seemingly much easier than trying to drop zombies, martial arts, and ninjas into the story as it is much more successful a project than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

As it turns out, Pride and Prejudice seems to have provided the plotline to many other Bollywood movies I have seen as well. I have personally been watching Bollywood movies for many years. When I was a teenager I occasionally caught glimpses of Indian movies on channel 18 or 22 while I was channel surfing. Invariably these movies contained an attractive brown skinned woman singing in a strange high-pitched voice in some weird foreign language. I didn’t know what they were, but they were interesting enough to watch for a few minutes, until I got tired of the singing.

I rediscovered Bollywood movies about eight or nine years ago on a Blockbuster night wherein there was nothing on the main shelves that was even mildly interesting that I hadn’t already seen. My wife found the film Kuch Naa Kaho (which coincidentally also starred Ashwarya Rai) and we took a chance. After we got past the initial reactions: why are they singing and dancing, and isn’t this thing over yet; we found that the movie was pretty entertaining. So we took a chance on another Indian movie, and it was also found to be entertaining. Then my wife developed a crush on Abishek Bachchan (who, also coincidentally, is now Mr. Ashwarya Rai) and the next thing I knew I was constantly watching Bollywood movies.

My wife and I were already deeply into our Bollywood phase when we first saw Bride and Prejudice in the theaters. My wife loved it. I was less convinced at the time, I didn’t like the music, and the concert appearance by Ashanti seemed like crass cross marketing. It has since grown on me, however.

Despite my initial misgivings, I did feel that the movie was a proper Americanization of a Bollywood film. I did not, at that time, have enough knowledge or understanding of Pride and Prejudice to judge it on its merits as an adaptation of the novel. Nor did I realize that the director was actually from London.

What I now find most interesting about this journey is that in covering those lengthy times and great distances and in the process of transforming from the Bennet family into the Bakshi family, they seem to have lost Catherine along the way. By the time they got to India it seems her loss was too great a trifle to mention because no one ever speaks of it. Nor does her loss do anything to slow down Lalita in her intercourse with William Darcy (who apparently lost his Fitz along the way on his journey). I am not knowledgeable enough about India to understand if there was a cultural reason for the dropping of a daughter.  Since there did not seem to be an entail at issue in the movie, the Bakshi family seemed independent and not too fearful of the death of its patriarch, I would have to ask are five daughters too many? Is four a better number to have? Or, was this an oversight? Perhaps it was just a shortcut the writers used. I do think it important to mention now that I know enough about the original material to have noticed this.

As for the crass commercialism I criticized to my wife, at length, as an American distortion of Bollywood, I am now forced to admit that Americans culture is indeed not the only culture prone to crass commercialism. I suppose it was not for nothing that Napoleon called England a nation of shopkeepers.

Also worth mentioning is how director Gurinder Chadha managed to turn the story away from issues of class and propriety and push it towards observations on ethnocentrism. At the wedding where Darcy and Lalita meet, Darcy’s demeanor is not taken for pride by Lalita, she reads it as disdain for India and its customs. When Lalita later finds out that Darcy is being pushed into marriage by his mother, she considers him hypocritical because he has attacked Indian arranged marriages.

This could be taken in a number of ways. Perhaps Chadha is slyly commenting on the hypocrisy of colonialism by Britain, and American neo-colonialism. I believe the use of an up and coming American R&B singer dropped into the film might bear that out. However, my Wikipedia research did show that it is a custom of Bollywood movies that a popular music star is dropped in incongruously to sing a song that may or may not have anything to do with the movie, which shows that the Indians can be found guilty of crass commercialism as well.

It could also mean that Chadha is highlighting the independence of the former colony. A demonstration that India, a part of the G-20, is a growing world power with a strong and growing economy as well as a vibrant culture. By implying the Bakshi family are landowners (there are several scenes showing Mr. Bakshi and Lalita directing farm workers),  Chadha is showing the family as strong and wealthy on its own. Alas, I am hindered in this analysis because Mrs. Bakshi seems not to be as cognizant of the earnings of the other characters as Mrs. Bennet is.

Regardless of Chadha’s geo-political motivations for making Bride and Prejudice, she does a good job of giving an overview of Bollywood conceits. Bride and Prejudice contains numerous songs sprinkled randomly throughout its length, many of which I found quite tedious (which is normal when I watch Bollywood movies, even my wife has a tendency to fast forward through the musical numbers). There is also extensive world travel to exotic (for Indians) locations. And the use of color is constant and overwhelming, like an acid trip.  Most amazing is that Chadha managed to tell the story in under two hours; especially when you consider that it took the BBC five hours to tell the tale and that Bollywood movies are often three hours long.

In Conclusion

People know this story, whether they realize it or not. Pride and Prejudiceis a classic because it resonates with so many different types of people. The story has been adapted, re-imagined, satirized, blasphemed, and expanded to fit the purposes of authors, screenwriters, playwrights, directors, storytellers, liars, geniuses, hacks, and many others. This versatility is what allows an American satirist (blasphemer?) to add zombies to the story at a time when economic events put zombies in the cultural zeitgeist of the American psyche. The same versatility allows a Nairobi born English director of Indian descent to transplant the story from the English countryside to the Northwest of India.

Pride and Prejudice is a timeless tale that is profound and touching enough to translate well into various cultures and contexts. Though I will very soon go back to my life, which allows little time for fiction, I am very glad I took the time to do this project. The next time I see that familiar plot, I will know whom to blame for my misery.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride And Prejudice. New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 2003.

Austen, Jane, and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2009.

Bishop, Kyle William. American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2010.

Bosch, Torie. “First, Eat All the Lawyers: Why the zombie boom is really about the economic fears of white-collar workers.” Slate.com October 25, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/10/zombies_the_the_zombie_boom_is_inspired_by_the_economy_.html

Bride and Prejudice. Dir. Gurinder Chadha. Perf. Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson. Pathé Pictures International, 2004.

Kuch Naa Kaho. Dir. Rohan Sippy. Perf. Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan and Satish Shah.  R.S. Entertainment, 2003.

Le Pacte Des Loups (The Brotherhood Of The Wolf). Dir. Christophe Gans. Perf. Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos and Vincent Cassel. Canal+, 2001.

Ogg, Jon C. “Zombies worth over $5 billion to economy.” 24/7wallst.com October 31, 2011. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/zombies-economy-pump-5-million_n_1030569

Phipps, Keith. “The Brotherhood Of The Wolf.” Rev. of the movie “The Brotherhood Of The Wolf.” A.V.Club March 29, 2002. Retrieved from https://film.avclub.com/the-brotherhood-of-the-wolf-1798194786?%2Fsetsession

Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen and Brenda Blethyn. Universal Pictures, 2005.

2 thoughts on “Jane Austen Conquers the World

  1. Things become trite because they are true and stand the test of time. They occasionally have have to be re-packaged to appeal to younger audiences.

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