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Gwyneth Paltrow played the title role in the 1996 film "Emma," based on Jane Austen’s novel. (CP)
Gwyneth Paltrow played the title role in the 1996 film "Emma," based on Jane Austen’s novel. (CP)

Jane Austen’s world: Why the author’s sense and cultural sensibilities live on Add to ...

This week, two centuries after the release of Pride and Prejudice, another adaptation of the Jane Austen staple hits movie theatres. And while I’m sure Austen in no way foresaw a version of her story that sees Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy take on the living dead, the development shouldn’t surprise her estate or her fans. After all, Austen’s stories will always endure, which is why we keep revisiting them.

To start, Austen consistently kept it simple. Her heroines were independent, free-thinking women (in an age where all such traits were condemned) whose happiness relied, not on the affections of men, but on being true to themselves. Elizabeth Bennet put the contentment of her sister above her own, Emma Woodhouse matchmade for her friends, Fanny Price maintained a surprisingly strong backbone and Elinor Dashwood held up her family. And while each Austen heroine did pair with a man in the end, they had, more importantly, resigned themselves to living without one beforehand. Elizabeth, Emma, Fanny, Elinor: They embodied the idea that it’s when you’re not looking for somebody that you’ll find them.

Which itself is an idea so many of us cling to in our modern lives. In an era built on accessibility, romantic partners may be physically easier to come by (be it through Tinder, social media or whatever else the kids use today), but the same human patterns still exist. In Austen’s books, women are scorned by untrustworthy men who seek to use them for social advancement or boosted egos (lest we forget how Captain Wickham betrays Darcy’s sister, and then Elizabeth). Like Austen characters, we all must sift through questionable personalities while navigating the ins and outs of love and evolving relationship statuses. Or, also like Austen characters, we can just say “No thanks” and walk away.

Few literary moments are as empowering as when Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Collins’s engagement, refusing his advances, after which her father commiserates with her (he totally gets her, thank goodness). And in the same way that Austen tales have inspired modern-day romances, Lizzie’s refusal to settle for just any guy also feeds into the climate of 2016, where singlehood is preferred to settling for somebody who isn’t right. In fact, Austen’s ethos has set the stage for women such as Amy Schumer, Nicki Minaj, Zendaya, Amy Poehler and Rowan Blanchard, whose feminist messages have stressed the importance of self-empowerment over settling for the sake of it. Any one of them could be Austen heroines – such as Clueless’s Cher Horowitz, whose declaration that she’s “not a prude [and] just highly selective” is a mantra worth yelling.

Especially since Cher is 1995’s answer to Emma Woodhouse, reminding us further that, without Jane Austen, we’d be deprived of adaptations such as Amy Heckerling’s iconic comedy, as well as retellings such as Bridget Jones’s Diary (based on Pride and Prejudice) and the Web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, or the period dramas that are now staples of Sunday-afternoon viewing (Sense and Sensibility, the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice and Joe Wright’s more recent interpretation of the same).

But not all things Austen turn to gold. In 2007, Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy starred in Becoming Jane, a biopic about the writer that felt like an Austen story turned limp soap opera, and 2013’s Austenland featured an Austen-crazed writer who immerses herself in Austen culture (at a theme park) in hopes of acquiring her own Mr. Darcy. But these films faltered because they betrayed Austen’s legacy: None of her heroines would go on a quest to acquire a man (at a theme park, really?), and a biopic about Austen should have been as much about her writing and later years as it was about her doomed love affair. Love stories are a huge part of the Austen legacy, but it’s her characters and their traits that we really remember.

Which is why I’m willing to give Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a chance. I like to think that Austen would approve of a version of Elizabeth Bennet trained in martial arts who’s willing to save the world from becoming a wasteland of the undead. Because Jane Austen’s lasted this long for a reason. And if her heroines could handle dating in the early 1800s, fighting zombies hardly compares.

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