Let’s be very clear right up front: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly what it promises to be. This is a zombie-infused reinterpretation of what may be the English language’s best-known love story. It is no more, and it is no less.
Since that’s a specific niche, you probably already know whether or not this movie is where you’re putting your disposable income this week. Luckily for those who are up for a bizarre, irreverent, and good-natured mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is actually a fun movie. Although the film might disappoint those viewers looking for the zombie-laden, battle-heavy film advertised in the trailers, I appreciated writer/director Burr Steers’ more balanced approach. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is part comedy flick, part horror movie, part war film, and part love story – a solid jack-of-all-trades, albeit a master of none. Much like caramel and cheese in popcorn or a blue dress with and orange belt, Austen’s classic English literary romance pairs with a zombie action flick in a surprisingly charming way.
For the uninitiated, this screenplay is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith – and, of course, Jane Austen. Grahame took Austen’s beloved story and infused it with significantly more zombies. Which is to say, significantly more than zero zombies, which is the number the original 1813 novel. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, both Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley) and Ms. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) are exceptionally well-trained and skilled in the art of battling the undead in 19th century England, but much like the original work, the two have a much harder time navigating their own attraction in the context of the class and societal expectations that surround them.
The fascinating appeal in both Grahame-Smith’s novel and Steers’ screenplay is how easily the zombie storyline layers on top of Austen’s original story. The film maintains most of the major tenets of the classic version. The screenplay relies on Austen’s wit (though sometimes inverting it), and never takes itself too seriously, but Steers also avoids the kind of broad comedy that characterizes lazy satire. The lines that got the most laughs were written over 200 years ago, though in some cases they were enhanced by a new setting, interpretation, or zombie-related twist.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies also deserves some credit for knowing and recognizing from whence it came. Steers wisely pays homage in a few places to the beloved 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (I won’t spoil anything, but it’s fair to say Riley ends up in a pond clothed in a white shirt). The smarter move, though, is recognizing the brilliance and value of Austen’s original characters. It’s not a coincidence that Austen is still studied two centuries after her work was published, and Steers happily rides Mr. Darcy’s coattails (or, in the new version, leather duster tails) in his storytelling. Anyone familiar with Austen will recognize not just Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, but also a variety of other characters keeping true to their classic form. Matt Smith (an erstwhile Doctor from Dr. Who) especially fits the obnoxiously comedic role of Parson Collins as if cast by Austen herself. And there is a particular satisfaction in the points in the films wherein the verbal sparring that characterizes the classic becomes the physical sparring that characterizes the remake. It’s notable in scenes Lizzie has with her sisters and with Lady Catherine, but it’s most memorable in the immediate aftermath of Darcy’s classically cringe-worthy mid-story proposal.
Despite these strengths in the movie, it would be fair for even the most game viewer to wonder, frankly, why? Why zombies? Why Pride and Prejudice? Why the reinterpret the novel and certainly why create the film(s)? The cynical answer, and maybe the correct one, is that investors rarely fail with even a twisted retelling of a story that’s been popular for centuries. But if we step outside the box of cynicism enough to imagine that a movie that so heavily features the undead could have applicable life lessons, there might actually a question or two worth exploring: Does raising the external stakes make one of literature’s greatest love stories more or less compelling? Is a love forged in physical battle more or less meaningful than one built through debate and conversation and the mundane realities of peace?
Those kinds of questions probably dig a little too deep for this kind of macabre historical fiction. But it’s certainly true that Jane Austen isn’t a dumb writer, and despite those who will quickly write it off, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t a dumb re-working of her novel. Steers and his cast know exactly what’s smart and fun about Austen and despite all the odds, they’re able to dovetail it with what’s compelling and scary about zombies. Does pairing literary canon with the undead go against the grain? Sure, but so does pairing chocolate with bacon, and that’s an idea that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. Sometimes, if you’re willing to be a little open-minded, you might find that a thing that’s weird and different just kind of works.