How does an idea become overkill?

03.23.09 8 years ago 2 Comments

Quirk Classics

One of the worst parts of SXSW this year was getting that horrible black lung rot that I seem to pick up when I travel these days.  I think having kids has ruined my immune system.  In the last three years, I’ve gotten more deathly respiratory and sinus plagues visited on me than in the twenty years before that combined.

One of the best parts of SXSW this year was getting a little time to hang out with my old boss Harry Knowles, who I just plain don’t see often enough these days.  Not that I ever did, but the day to day interaction of working with someone can allow you to forget you don’t get enough chances to see them socially, just as friends.  We were lucky that way at AICN… the friendships made the work almost indecent amounts of fun much of the time.  It was like getting away with something.

Unfortunately, the worst and the best parts of SXSW overlapped a bit there at the end, and even as I got a chance to have dinner with Harry and Quint and Capone and Rav and Kraken and Father Geek, my fever was peaking without me realizing it at first.  Things got a little weird by the time we finished screening “The Horseman,” a film we’d all missed during the festival, but I remember at one point in the evening, Harry told me that he’d been sent two copies of a book for review, and he gave me the second copy to read on the plane on the way home.  The title?  “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

I’d actually been planning to pick it up when it was published anyway.  By this point, I felt obligated because of a brewing and ongoing story about yet another development race going on in the business right now, first written about in an excellent piece by John Harlow.  We’ve all seen this happen before, with films like “Big” and “18 Again” and “Like Father Like Son” and “Vice Versa” all happening at once or “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” going to head to head or “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” racing to the screen.  But this time, the high-concept isn’t meteors or volcanoes or body-switching… it’s the twisting of classic material into something entirely different.

This time, the first one to make a dent in the general consciousness was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” written by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.  That first thing I read about it sounded sort of amazing.  The idea of taking a classic and well known public domain novel and essentially “remixing” it as a horror story is admittedly sort of meta, but done well, it could be a great example of repurposed art, something that’s absolutely emblematic of where we are right now in pop culture.

Within a week, Michael Fleming broke the story that there was a nearly-identical concept already in development, called “Pride and Predator.”  Elton John’s Rocket Pictures is producing for Will Clark to direct the film in which an alien creature crash lands on Earth, right in the middle of Austen’s novel.  Clark co-wrote the film with Andrew Kemble and John Pape, and it sounds like it’s more of an overtly comedic take on the mash-up.  But still… it’s awfully close, and if I were producing either one, I think I’d be a little irritated.

Or at least, I would have been a little irritated until I saw a recent post on Hollywood Elsewhere, when I would have switched to full-blown pissed off.  “William Shakespeare’s Land Of The Dead” is a stage production in Philadelphia, so it’s not like it’s going to interrupt either of these other productions, but the point is that it’s reached a tipping point.  The idea has hit critical mass and suddenly everyone and his brother seems to be running their own riff on this one very basic concept.

Naturally, I’m curious to see which one’s going to go from hypothetical to actual piece of pop culture first, and which one’s going to be the most successful.  And I’ve started reading “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” now, managing to chip away at about ten or twelve chapters so far.  And I remain impressed by the crazy exercise of taking the actual text of the Austen novel and just twisting a detail here, a description there, and somehow completely reinventing the world they live in.  The Bennet girls were now all trained by Shaolin masters in the far East to be more than adept at the deadly arts, and all the familiar parties and set pieces of the book now also feature random zombie attacks and decapitations.  The underlying character dynamics play out much as they do in Austen’s original, with the Darcy-Elizabeth-Wickham dynamic intact.  It’s a breezy read, and if you’re familiar with the text, it’s a fun game to play as you read.  “Oh, that’s new.  That’s the same.  That’s new.  That’s the same.”

But beyond that… I seriously doubt there’s a film in it.  Or in “Pride and Predator.”  Or in “William Shakespeare’s Land Of The Dead,” frankly.  I think these are all short film ideas at best.  Because once that one joke wears off, what do you have?  Unless the filmmakers involved were smart enough to stage genuinely fresh and novel zombie or monster sequences (and so few ever seem to be), you’re left with already overly-familiar stories with overly-familiar horror elements grafted on.

First one to the marketplace might score a hit, but if all of these projects as well as the crazy “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” mash-ups all try to claw their way onto the screen, I think it’s going to be a long, long, redundant, redundant couple of years, and it’ll create some genuine antipathy towards the also-rans as they stack up, one after another after another.

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