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Why Shaun of the Dead Should Be Considered Literary

Acknowledgements

First of all, we would like express our sincere thanks to our Literature teachers, for providing us with useful insights into what Literature is and inspiring us as to how we can go about analysing Shaun of the Dead.

I would also like to sincerely thank Ms Teo Hsin Fern for being a knowledgeable mentor, guiding us along our research journey to prove the literary legitimacy of Shaun of the Dead. In addition, we would like to thank many students from our school for encouraging us along the way – specifically Ron, for providing us with valuable advice.

Introduction

Shaun of the Dead is a comedy film released in 2004 and directed by Edgar Wright. The film follows a man named Shaun who has to survive a zombie apocalypse. It has been considered a cult classic since its release because of its gut-busting mastery of humour and its smart premise. This ‘entertainment factor’ of Shaun of the Dead has placed in firmly in the category of films that are not serious enough to be considered a work of literature.

Traditionally, literature has been scoped as the canonical works of authors, as seen in Bloom’s ‘The Western Canon’, published 1994. This list of 25 literary authors included the likes of Shakespeare, Austen, Chaucer and more. This meant that literature only included established texts written by authors worshipped as brilliant by the literary community, therefore excluding the works of any other authors regardless of literary merit from being considered literature, simply because they are ‘essentially’ not. (Geisel, T.S. 2005)

Aim of Research

The aim of our research is to prove that the film can and should be considered literary. Shakespearean plays and writings have been considered as literature by the public (Erne, L 2013), but this has not extended itself to other areas in film (Anne Bartsch 2012), where viewers prioritise immediate emotional gratification over appreciation of a film’s work. Through this study we aim to prove that film can be considered literary according to the essentialist traits of literature.

There have been controversies on similar topics — discussions as to whether film can be considered literary. For example, Matthew Brett Vaden argues in 2015 that “Film incites viewers to explore the world it displays. Viewers feel the presence and power film possesses because they look into a secondary world— one that seems very real to them, yet is also elusive and mystical.” and despite the fact that film and literature in the traditional sense are presented in very different mediums, “at their core they share the same essence, or spirit. That spirit is story, or narrative.” We aim to establish how Shaun of the Dead can be deemed literary, through close analysis of its cinematography, narrative elements, and stylistic language or diction.

We are choosing to study the first, third and fifth traits of essentialist literature as we think that they are the most contentious ones that, once proved, would render our argument much more cogent. The other two are taken to be

The reason for choosing Shaun of the Dead would be that the Edgar Wright has been considered to be one of the most brilliant comedy film-makers and despite all the techniques Edgar Wright employs, many consider his work to be “entertaining” at most, and not in any sense literary. Hence, through this study we hope to give Edgar Wright the recognition he deserves for his pieces of work.

We plan to analyse the essentialist traits of Shaun of the Dead, supported with evidence from the film’s themes it explores and its characters’ development.

Reasons for Choice of Topic

Framing a Research Topic

Our project aims to explore the literary nature of Shaun of the Dead, by defining explicitly that Shaun of the Dead possesses inherent literary characteristics according to the five qualities of essentialist literature, as defined below (Culler, 2000).

The essentialist definition of literature states that good literature should:

Foreground language

The first essentialist trait of literature dictates that literature should employ language proficiently and demonstrate its cleverness with the manipulation of words.

Be fictional

By fictional, it would mean that the plot of the story and its elements are figments of the author’s/creator’s imagination, and hence, should not be considered historically true or accurate.

Foreground concerns central to the human experience

Literature has to convey universal and transcendental concepts and themes of human nature – love, hate, life, or death.

Be purposive without purpose

Purposiveness refers to the art of creating literature, whereby the creator applies language intentionally in certain ways. However, literature does not have a defined purpose for doing so, unlike other forms of text. For example, propaganda has an ulterior motive in its production (Jowett, G., & O.Donnell, V. 2018) . Instead, literature allows readers to appreciate it on its own and draw their own conclusions, and should not be didactic.

Be intertextual

Intertextuality refers to the purposeful similarities between different works of literature that alter the viewer’s perspective based on a person’s own knowledge. Intertextuality includes literary devices such as quotations, allusions, pastiche, calque and parody (Genette, G. 2001) (Hallo, William W. 2010).

Close reading

“much of the focus in the study of postmodern literature is on intertextuality: the relationship between one text (a novel for example) and another or one text within the interwoven fabric of literary history. Critics point to this as an indication of postmodernism’s lack of originality and reliance on cliches. Intertextuality in postmodern literature can be a reference or parallel to another literary work, an extended discussion of a work, or the adoption of a style. In postmodern literature this commonly manifests as references to fairy tales – as in works by Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, and many other – or in references to popular genres such as sci-fi and detective fiction. An early 20th century example of intertextuality which influenced later postmodernists is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges, a story with significant references to Don Quixote which is also a good example of intertextuality with its references to Medieval romances. Don Quixote is a common reference with postmodernists, for example Kathy Acker’s novel Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream. Another example of intertextuality in postmodernism is John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor which deals with Ebenezer Cooke’s poem of the same name. Often intertextuality is more complicated than a single reference to another text. Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice, for example, links Pinocchio to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Also, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose takes on the form of a detective novel and makes references to authors such as Aristotle, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Borges.”

Apply the Post-Modernist concepts of intertextuality and pastiche to Shaun of the Dead.

Intertextuality in Shaun of the Dead can be seen in the many references it makes to other films and tv shows. To list a few examples, in Day of the Dead, a well-known zombie film a zombie staggers into the frame. Near the beginning of the movie, Shaun of the Dead has a similar shot of Shaun staggering into the frame of the camera after waking up. Shaun’s place of employment before the zombie apocalypse is called Foree Electric, a clear reference to one of the stars of Dawn of the Dead (yet another zombie movie), Ken Foree. Finally, after the zombie epidemic begins, Ed exclaims to Shaun’s mum, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara.” This line references a line from George Romero’s seminal zombie movie Night of the Living Dead.

Cinematography

According to “A Film Experience”, film can be analysed through 7 methods. The analysis of frame, light and colour, the lens, movement, texture, establishing and POV. Cross-referencing with “Corrigan White”, the ability of a film’s mise-en-scene to portray themes and messages reinforces the aforementioned characteristic of “Foregrounding of Language”. References to other literature can be identified (i.e. intertextuality) and, additionally, the postmodern pastiche will be analysed to deem this film literary.

Themes

Peter Barry defined how humanistic literature should express its themes and what sort of themes it expresses in his seminal work “Theory before Theory”. He details the tenets of liberal humanism and though this is important to our study, we are mainly focusing on the broad definition gathered from the tenets that literature should foreground tensions and paradoxes that are timelessly significant to human nature, transcending synchronic and diachronic limitations.

Structure

Shaun of the dead follows the three act structure of film. The structure is involves a set-up, then a confrontation and ends with a resolution. (Moura, G. 2014) The acts are punctuated with a plot point that initiates a pivotal change, either within the characters’ or their situations. Throughout the entire film, the structure of Shaun of the Dead is used to highlight and flesh out the theme of the film, mainly, the conflict between wanting to grow up and wanting to hold on to your immature youth.

Setup

Act I deals with the introduction of Shaun and Liz, as well as their relationship and its struggles. We are exposed to the information that the two of them want to get together, but due to Shaun’s own inconfidence and indecisiveness, their relationship has more or less stagnated. Act I is centered around setting up the expectations of the themes that would be explored in the show, such as growing up versus nostalgia. Act I also establishes the conformity of society and how mundane life is around Shaun.

Confrontation

Act 2 throws viewers into the eventual overriding conflict by introducing the main characters to the main antagonists of the movie: the zombies, and forces Shaun to confront the relationship problems that have plagued him and Liz. The main characters evade the zombies and find sanctuary in the Winchester Pub, slowing the action down and setting into motion the human drama which will drive the remainder of the movie. The choice Shaun has made to grow up and become an adult manifests its consequences as he loses his mother (and therefore the protection and motherliness she gave to him). David even questions his dedication to become more mature, further asking serious questions of Shaun. The zombies then start their final assault on the Winchester. Shaun and his friends are gradually picked off one by one, even as Shaun starts to see the benefits of growing up.

Resolution

In Act 3, Shaun, Ed and Liz are cornered in the basement of the Winchester, and come to terms with their mortality just as Shaun is coming to terms with his newfound maturity. Suddenly a deus ex machina arrives in the form of the army and Shaun and Liz are saved. Wright concludes the story by tying up the loose ends of the story, showing how Shaun and Liz have resolved their differences and repaired their relationship, how zombified Ed is still Shaun’s best friend, and how Shaun has finally matured and grown.

Close Reading

“Close reading is thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings”, according to Burke. In our study, the text refers to Shaun of the Dead. Specific ways in which this will happen within the context of our study is the linking of micro-analysis to macro-meaning; this means connecting the breaking down of film, as covered in the above section, to what Shaun of the Dead means in a humanistic sense.

Pastiche

A pastiche is “a creative work that imitates another author or genre” In Shaun of the Dead, it is clear that Edgar Wright has been influenced by the work of George A. Romero, a filmmaker widely credited to be the pioneer of the zombie film. Wright’s bagayyyy by Romero can even be seen in the title, where Shaun of the Dead is an allusion, and a play on words, to Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead.

Conclusion

Our project might be limited by the fact that Shaun of the Dead is a largely entertainment targeted film. Hence, finding readings which go in-depth into analysing Shaun of the Dead as literary are rare, focusing more on the plot rather than literary merits. Therefore, for us to find readings relevant to the film, it is necessary for us to widen our scope and use more general readings, which might not be entirely applicable to Shaun of the Dead or may not be scholarly. This means that we have to perform more analysis on our side in order to accomodate for the lack of available literature, and find ways to link these generic understandings to the specific context of the film.

Future Studies

For our future studies, we may pursue defining The Room (considered one of the worst films of all time) as literary. The Room, a highly controversial movie will prove that film regardless of its ratings or intention can and may be considered literary according to essentialist traits, and justify that the divide between entertainment and literature is a false dichotomy. We may also choose to pursue more of Edgar Wright’s work in the Cornetto trilogy and through exploring these concepts, it may raise awareness to the public about the intricacies and genius involved in film making.

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