Jane Austen’s novels are no strangers to film adaptations. You’ve probably seen at least a couple of the many movies that make up that rocky history. If there’s anything to learn from the successes and the flops, it’s that a desire to retell her stories speaks to the deeply universal themes of love, marriage and domestic life in her work.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is the latest reimagining to make it to the big screen, throwing the undead into the familiar tale of heroine Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The zombie mashup starts, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
The original line still holds true in “PPZ” -- in fact, marriage is still at the forefront of the story, and its importance is highlighted by the addition of zombies. In the film, Mrs. Bennet, with the same constant nagging and naked ambition as the original character, emphasizes to her husband how important it is that her five daughters, including Liz, find husbands. for otherwise, they will inherit nothing as spinsters.
Mr. Bennet (played by Charles Dance, probably best known as Tywin Lannister on "Game of Thrones") replies, “Their immediate survival is my foremost concern.”
In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the two parents disagree on what should drive their daughters to marry -- economy versus passion. In this adaptation, however, the conflicting opinion is over what holds the most importance: the Bennet sisters’ immediate or long-term survival, with zombie training the key to the former and marriage the latter.
“PPZ” reveals to us that just as much as the zombie apocalypse is a story of survival, so is the marriage plot, especially for women during the early 19th century. As stressed in the novel, the Bennet sisters could not inherit their father's property. And without property, a single woman was defenseless in the world.
So when Jane Bennet, the most beautiful of the Bennet sisters, rides a horse to visit the wealthy and handsome Mr. Bingley, she is making a conscious decision to traverse the zombie-infested land between their estates. But an engagement to her prized potential suitor Bingley is worth it.
If this sounds ridiculously dangerous, we should remember that women in the Regency era were no strangers to risk. Valued for their ability to produce offspring, women who married took on the real risk of dying in childbirth.
With their zombie-slaying skills, the Bennet sisters aren’t weak physically -- the bloody carnage they leave behind them at a ball gone horribly awry proves that. Financially, however, they still come from a middle-class family that can’t afford to take care of them for the rest of their lives. Even with the modern addition of zombies, this movie hasn’t time-traveled to the age of liberal feminism and women making their own paper, as Beyoncé strongly advises.
If you think top-notch combat training would elevate women to be equal to men in the "PPZ" world, you’d be wrong. Men in the movie train as well -- much of Darcy’s pride comes from his reputation as a formidable zombie-killing Colonel. Women, as skilled as they may be, are not being recruited as soldiers at the front lines of the zombie war. Their skills are admired by men but not necessarily taken as seriously as when men possess them.
“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of singing, dancing and the art of war,” says Darcy.
Even though those fighting skills are indeed a necessity, they are generally valued like any other “domestic” art -- more as a symbol of social status than an actual utility. These ladies are able to protect themselves in the face of undead hordes, but that ability doesn’t free them from their reliance on men for survival in the long run, and the ultimate necessity to marry.
In a scene with the cruel Caroline Bingley, a rich aristocrat vying for Darcy’s affection, she mocks the fact that Liz was trained in China, not Japan. In the impressive pop-up book opening credits of the movie, we learn that China is where the wise go and Japan, the wealthy.
When Mr. Collins, an odious character gleefully played by Matt Smith, courts Liz, he asserts that she will have to give up her zombie fighting when they get married and later offers to take her shopping for pots and pans to replace her swords and daggers.
It also seems that physical attractiveness still outranks any other trait as the most desirable in a wife. Although, Darcy stands out as a man who finds Liz’s combat fighting attractive, valuing them above looks. As Mr. Darcy notes while Liz is slaying zombies left and right, “her arms are surprisingly muscular, but not unfeminine.”
Eventually, our heroine does find love with Darcy, in a balance of romance and rationality. It’s no coincidence that her true love happens to be a very rich man. Even with their deadly powers, the women in "PPZ" must still look to men as their lifelines in the world.
In the real world, many women still face those circumstances. As The Atlantic has pointed out, statistics show that, financially, married women tend to fare much better than unmarried women, and that while while wealthy women can afford to reject marriage, poor women can't.
Liz’s friend Charlotte Lucas is the embodiment of the unmarried woman who has to accept a proposal to ensure her own financial well-being. Without marrying Mr. Collins, she was doomed to spinsterhood with no inheritance with which to support herself.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” shows us that the narrative of women’s lives, however domestic or seemingly romantic, have always been stories of survival and strength. With or without flesh-eating zombies, the real threat women have frequently faced is a life of poverty, and marriage as a means of survival is still a crucial aspect of many women’s lives today.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that women could not inherit property during the Regency period. It has since been amended to reflect the fact that women could.
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