Unlike 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which didn’t even try to adapt author Seth Grahame-Smith’s reverential approach to honoring genres while at the same time mashing them, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies attempts to retain its source material’s light touch in blending zombie horror with Austenian romance. The synthesis doesn’t work as smoothly on film as it did in prose, but enough of it works to provide plenty of bloody good fun for fans of both.
What’s it about?
Exactly like the original 1813 Jane Austen “novel of manners’ from which it liberally borrows, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is set in early 19th Century England. Only this England and its living human population face the daily threat of zombies roaming the countryside, with once genteel, well-mannered neighbors and landed gentry turned into brain-devouring monsters with a single bite from someone infected with the unstoppable zombie plague.
In this version of the story, the Bennet sisters — Jane (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows), Elizabeth (Lily James, Cinderella), Mary (Milly Brady), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse) and Lydia (Ellie Bamber) — had as a part of their “proper” English education training in shaolin kung fu as well as bladed weapons and firearms as means of defending themselves against the undead. Their martial skills are a point of pride for their father, Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance), who wishes only to see his daughters made as capable of survival in the world gone to hell as possible.
But as in the original, Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) has in mind to see her daughters wed to wealthy husbands of excellent social standing, thus ensuring their own security and prosperity, as if the world wasn’t falling apart with flesh-eating monsters popping up everywhere. To that end, Mrs. Bennet engineers an opportunity for her daughters to attend a lavish party at neighboring Netherfield Park hosted by the house’s new tenant, the handsome Mr. Charles Bingley (Douglas Booth).
While at the party, Bingley and Jane enjoy an immediate mutual attraction, while at the same time Elizabeth finds herself reluctantly getting to know Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), Bingley’s aloof and haughty best friend. In this world, Darcy is also Colonel Darcy, a well-known and feared zombie hunter of renowned skill and devotion to his duty, which often translates to him having little time and patience for social graces and niceties.
The party is interrupted by — what else? — a zombie incursion, and it’s during the ensuing battle that both Darcy and Elizabeth see firsthand just how skilled they each are at dispatching the “sorry stricken.” And so begins their difficult courtship, full of many of the same complications and subplots that make it such a classic in Austen’s zombie-free original, but peppered with the occasional zombie getting its head chopped off or blown off by a musket.
Faithful to the source
Chances are that if you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the novel that you’ll at the very least appreciate the effort by director/screenwriter Burr Steers (17 Again, Igby Goes Down) to faithfully bring to the screen many of the novel’s signature moments and dialogue. What was key to the novel’s delight is also key to making the movie work at any level: to retain as many of the familiar plot beats of Austen’s classic while blending in lots of bloody zombie mayhem as well as samurai and martial arts genre elements.
Steers’ script does deviate from Grahame-Smith’s novel in terms of delivering a different third act crisis, but it’s a justifiable deviation in terms of how it delivers a more action-packed, suspenseful climax, as well as an opportunity for characters audiences will want to see confront one another do so on-screen, as opposed to in the novel, where their resolution is told, rather than shown.
Casting makes it work
Also key to making any adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, mashup or not, is the casting of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet. Originally, Natalie Portman was to play this role, but she stepped aside, retaining a producer credit for the film, and the production went with Lily James, who wowed audiences last year in Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of Cinderella. Thanks to that experience, James carries her every scene projecting complete comfort with the more formal dialogue one would expect from a film set in this era.
But what may surprise some is just how well she handles the physicality demanded by the film’s many fighting and swordplay scenes. Granted, the sword and martial arts choreography isn’t as acrobatic or aerobatic as, for example, the Resident Evil films or Chinese wuxia films where fighters are flying in all directions on wires. But there’s still enough in what the fight choreography demands here for James, as well as all the actresses playing the Bennet sisters, to shine and kick serious butt.
The casting of Sam Riley as Darcy also works, although he’s not given nearly as many opportunities to show off the swordsmanship for which Darcy is supposedly feared. If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does have a flaw in regards to its delivery of action, it’s that the purportedly superior Japanese martial arts wielded by more privileged aristocrats like Darcy and his haughty aunt, the one-eyed zombie killing legend Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played with stylish and steely verve by “Game of Thrones” own Lena Leadey, gets short shrift. A little more Misumi Kenji and Zatoichi would have gone a long way toward granting this production some serious samurai swordplay cred.
Not entirely seamless
All this is not to say that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the best film you’ve ever seen from either genre. Its script has serious holes, and leaves plot threads that felt important throughout the film curiously unresolved. Watch for the Four Macguffins, err, Horsemen of the Zombie Apocalypse and where that particular plot thread goes for perhaps the most egregious of the film’s script failings.
It should also go without saying that if you have no patience at all for the sort of romantic plot lines and social commentary that characterize Austen’s work, then you may find yourself put off by seeing them play out here, even in the midst of katana swords clashing and zombie heads being blown off. If you prefer your zombie horror stories less arch and pastoral, stick to “The Walking Dead.”
Keeping the film’s carnage restrained to PG-13 levels is also a curious choice that may turn off hardcore zombie genre lovers. The difference is most manifest in the lack of blood — while there’s lots of rotting flesh, limbs lopped off and heads separated from shambling bodies, the amount of splatter from all that killing is markedly less than one might expect.
If you’re a fan of the novel and mashups in general, absolutely. The effort to keep this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies true to the original material’s tone and approach alone merits attention and applause. If you’re just a fan of zombie films, it’s also worthy of your time, though not as much as other, more pure and serious ventures into the genre.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth and Matt Smith, with Charles Dance and Lena Headey. Directed by Burr Steers.
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material.