In 2010, Seth Grahame-Smith penned a future cult classic, one that Hollywood would waste no time in bringing to the big screen: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. However, one year earlier, the unknown Grahame-Smith published what would become a best-selling cult novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The generic mash-up gave Grahame-Smith, who had earned a degree in film from Emerson College, his first real literary success. The book, which lists Jane Austen as coauthor, was quickly optioned by a major film studio. Set to be released today (Feb. 5th, 2016), this adaptation brings Grahame-Smith’s first cinematic mash-up, and what these two movies mean, to the front of our minds.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was produced by Tim Burton and took the form of an action-horror hybrid that cast Lincoln as a secret assassin who battles vampires, destroying the creatures who feed on the blood of slaves, and with them the need for slavery itself. Although the film performed well in theaters, it was universally panned by critics, who objected not to its historical absurdity but rather to what they saw as a dearth of artistic merit. Whatever the critics thought, audiences loved it. After a half century without a major theatrically released film, Lincoln was back. And he was pissed.
Just four months after Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter appeared in theaters, audiences were offered a far more reverent Lincoln film. Rumors of a Spielberg-directed Lincoln picture had circulated in Hollywood for nearly a decade, ever since Spielberg had optioned the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The film was scripted by Tony Kushner and starred Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. The narrative focused on the final months of Lincoln’s life, including and especially the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the end of the Civil War, and the buildup to Lincoln’s assassination. To say that it was an enormous success, both financially and critically, would be an understatement. The film was nominated for dozens of awards, and it grossed nearly $300 million.
For the purposes of Lincoln before Lincoln, what matters more than the many stark and obvious differences between Spielberg’s Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the one thing they share in common: a focus on Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Beginning with D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—an overtly racist film that laments the demise of the Confederacy and celebrates the formation of the Ku Klux Klan—Hollywood routinely minimized or simply ignored Lincoln’s role as the emancipator. As this book makes clear, Lincoln has enjoyed many incarnations: Savior of the Union, Great Commoner, and the First American, among others. Before 2012, Hollywood had celebrated them all but neglected one: Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.
Like the famous Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Hollywood subtly reinforced the notion that freeing the slaves was not among Lincoln’s most significant achievements. By accident or design, American movies and miniseries routinely leave out or fabricate important information like in both Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. These historical revisions and powerful memory work likely to shape some high school English papers about Lincoln and Elizabeth Bennet tell us more about ourselves than the historical and fictional people they are about. Despite routinely leaving the emancipator on the cutting room floor while giving a starring role to one of Lincoln’s other manifestations came to a very visible end in 2012, it leaves us to ask: How did popular movies and miniseries invite Americans to understand themselves and to remember Lincoln before Lincoln?