If Jane Austen were alive today, one has to inevitably wonder if she would be joining the rush of saturating the market with as much zombie media as possible. Well, in 2009, writer, Seth Grahame-Smith answered that question for us with his best-selling mash-up novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a re-telling of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, which remixed the same story with the presence of the living dead.
The idea is as ludicrous as it is ingenious. Jane Austen died over a century ago, after all, and that has technically left her novels and characters in the public domain. Even if it is a madman’s vision, why not experiment with the books in such a way? Well, clearly this vision worked, as the original Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel was a huge hit, and had a movie adaptation optioned for it right away. Due to the ambitious nature of the genre mash-up however, the movie spent quite a while in development hell, going through several directors, actors and writers for over half a decade, before it finally landed with writer-director, Burr Steers, who finally brought the movie to theatres successfully.
The novel may have been a big hit, but is it something that works just as effectively on the big screen? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. As a more cheeky, subversive take on Pride and Prejudice, the movie succeeds, and has plenty of charm. Inevitably though, the movie is in a tight spot, since those going for the Jane Austen spin likely won’t care as much about the zombie material, and vice-versa. Hamstringing the zombie angle further is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has a PG-13 rating, so it’s not all that gory or intense, compared to a dedicated hard R-rated zombie flick.
The genre blend is passable, and those looking for a different sort of zombie tale, or simply those who enjoy Jane Austen stories in any variation, will have a good amount of fun with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It won’t be one of 2016’s standouts, but it’s a reasonably good time while it lasts.
If you’ve already read the source novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, or seen any of its numerous film adaptations since then, you’ll already be familiar with most of the lead personalities of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and how they function. If you aren’t familiar with Pride and Prejudice however, you can still watch this movie, and get a good idea of who each personality is supposed to be, despite the large initial scale of Jane Austen’s source story.
The movie is headlined by Elizabeth Bennet, played by Lily James, who is the second-born woman of a family that consists of only daughters and no sons, trained in the finest of warfare, as well as social niceties. This is the first big deviation in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the fact that every woman is trained not just in class, the arts and whatever else the Jane Austen novel had them working towards, but also in martial arts and weapons, so they can fight zombies, who are spreading across Europe, and are seen as an irritating, but deadly nuisance. The Bennet daughters are among the finest of zombie killers, and this has them highly sought after to be married off to various lords and noblemen.
After her experience in the costume-flavoured drama of Downton Abbey on television, or even Disney’s live-action Cinderella movie from last year, James is definitely well-suited to her lead part, though also displays a surprising balance between being a proper lady, and being a badass fighter. This makes her a cool and appealing new spin on Austen’s former leading lady of Pride and Prejudice. We do see a good chunk of her sisters, most notably Elizabeth’s one older sister, Jane, played by Bella Heathcote, but much of the story unfolds from Elizabeth’s perspective, as with the source story. Because of this, Elizabeth is the one Bennet daughter that truly feels distinct and memorable. Jane does as well to a point, thanks to Bella Heathcote’s likable performance, but Lily James definitely stands tallest amongst the Bennet daughters.
Of course, Elizabeth isn’t the only character that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies realizes well. Sam Riley’s violent, brooding new take on noble suitor, Mr. Darcy is another character highlight in the movie. Before we even properly get to know the Bennet family, we get to know everything pertinent about Mr. Darcy, who kicks off the movie with, frankly, one of its best scenes, as his own vendetta against zombies comes to the fore in a great way. The love story between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from the novel is well intact, and largely told beat-for-beat, with the addition of the undead, surprisingly, not really altering much of it. The necessity of the love story might irk those who are coming for the zombies above all else, but fortunately, the main romantic arc is at least shared between two of the movie’s best characters.
The other big highlight amongst the rather extensive cast in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is flamboyant, cowardly Bennet cousin, Mr. Collins, played by Matt Smith, Lily James’ real-life boyfriend during filming. Smith is a kooky, ridiculous delight, no doubt echoing his memorable lead turn in Doctor Who for several years, and proves to be a great fit for the movie, even if he doesn’t show up until around the halfway point. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll know how Mr. Collins fits in, but, without spoilers, the joke of Mr. Collins being a well-to-do, but not exactly manly suitor is taken to its logical extreme in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Matt Smith proves to be excellently in on this joke. This makes any of Smith’s scenes provide some of the movie’s best moments of comedy, especially when the zombies inevitably become involved.
From there though, the rest of the characters feel a bit overshadowed by the sheer ridiculousness of the idea behind this remixing of Jane Austen’s story. You will still see the rest of Austen’s other characters from Pride and Prejudice, with at least one of which being worked into a truly off-the-wall climax and cheeky cliffhanger ending for a sequel that’s mostly played as a gag about the movie’s stint in development hell, and surprisingly, this movie actually follows Austen’s original novel a bit more closely than Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel does in its third act especially. It’s difficult to say much about the characters without giving away how they’re altered, or how they play their parts in big story developments, though I will say that there are modifications to the original Jane Austen source novel that are both large and small with the cast. The performances are enjoyable, especially from Lily James, Bella Heathcote, Sam Riley and Matt Smith, and they tend to strike a decent balance between the prim propriety of Jane Austen, and the general irreverence of a zombie mash-up.
Like I said, if you’ve already read the original Pride and Prejudice novel by Jane Austen, let alone the mash-up novel that inspired this movie, or even seen any of the Pride and Prejudice movie adaptations before now, then you’ll already know the basic progression of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before going in. The approximate story beats of the Jane Austen novel are still in place, and several of the larger deviations from the mash-up novel have been taken out, to tread a bit closer to the style of the Jane Austen novel in the case of the movie. There are several zombie-themed action sequences that are, naturally, invented wholesale for this mash-up though.
As for how the movie tells the story versus the book, it should come as little surprise that the story works best as a novel. The story still works well enough on film, though the constraints of film presentation means that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suffers from pretty blatant pacing issues, and a bit of tonal whiplash, given how it has to balance two drastically different genres. The movie will sometimes jump between posh costume drama and ass-kicking zombie romp at pure random, and often tries to play it off as a joke. This joke is funny the first couple of times that audiences will see it, but after that, it just kind of feels tedious and clumsy, leaving the actual Jane Austen-inspired sections of the movie feeling like a chore to those who are only seeing the movie for the zombies.
Inevitable pacing issues aside though, the movie’s storyline is still generally entertaining, and outside of some overlong Jane Austen-themed sections, it wisely doesn’t come off as taking itself too seriously, even though the Jane Austen-style presentation is often played straight, outside of raw zombie combat scenes. Even the story’s narration is consistently trying to sound comically dignified, though in such a way that its tongue stays planted firmly in its cheek nonetheless. There’s no avoiding some compromises with translating a mash-up story like this to film, but at least this movie adaptation of the beloved mash-up novel maintains enough of the goofy charm from its inspiration to avoid it feeling boring or excessively ludicrous.
Burr Steers is definitely unexpected as the director that finally successfully adapted Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to film, after so many directors tried beforehand, and ultimately walked away for one reason or another. Steers wrote the final draft of the script on top of directing duties as well, which is pretty impressive, considering that Steers’ sole high-profile directing credits beforehand were two forgettable Zac Efron vehicles, 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud.
Fortunately, Steers largely helms Pride and Prejudice and Zombies pretty well. There’s some real standout scenes that give the movie a good amount of style in its zombie sequences, such as the well-publicized first-person shot of Mr. Darcy beheading a zombie, and Steers creatively uses blur effects here and there to get around the constraints of the PG-13 rating, without necessarily neutering the zombie violence. It’s surprisingly competent for a director that has no experience with genre fare, and it gives the zombie action quite a bit of fun punch, if not much in the way of the gore factor. Even the appearance of the zombies is very tame and purely in the realm of PG-13, with the zombies looking more kooky than dangerous most of the time.
Perhaps the only place that Steers strangely trips up is in trying so hard to root everything in the style of Jane Austen within his movie adaptation. This means that whenever the movie needs to take a breather from the zombies, or simply has no zombie material that fits into the story at that point, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can often come to a screeching halt, resulting in overblown, tedious sequences of Jane Austen-style banter and puffery, and not much else. If you’re a fan of Jane Austen stories on their own merits, this may not be as big of a deal, but if you could care less about Austen’s original works, it makes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies occasionally uneven in terms of its entertainment value, though certainly not enough to completely ruin the fun.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
Much like the rest of the movie, the music suite of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can range pretty wildly in tone and execution. The score of the movie is composed by Fernando Velazquez, a smaller, lesser-known Spanish composer with credits like the 2014 Dwayne Johnson vehicle, Hercules, and last year’s Guillermo del Toro-helmed gothic romance movie, Crimson Peak. It’s about the kind of score that you would expect for a movie like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, switching sometimes abruptly between pleasant, string-filled harmonies that a Jane Austen story would invite, and more brash, hard-hitting tunes that complement the zombie action. It’s perfunctory without being remarkable, and it gets the job done.
The rest of the audio tends to switch the volume along with switching the movie’s primary genre between several scenes. The costume drama-styled Jane Austen-flavoured scenes are appropriately quiet and well-mannered, while some of the zombie scenes can be very loud and brash, as if to further try and compensate for the constraints of the PG-13 rating. There’s even several scenes in the movie that use sharp gunfire bursts and other such noises out of nowhere to make the audience jump during otherwise low-key conversation scenes, and while this will be fun to the younger crowd, you may not want to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in theatres if you’re older, and have a heart condition! Still, the way that the movie plays with the genre blend by sometimes sharply reminding you that there’s zombies in the movie, right when you think the Jane Austen side will fully take over, can be pretty amusing, to the younger crowd.
Like I said, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, while having a good amount of style, is still rooted in PG-13 sensibilities. The zombie designs are often goofy and intentionally silly-looking, and while the action has some cool, surprisingly explosive moments at times, it never really becomes, “Scary”, if that’s what you’re seeking out with your zombie flick. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies goes more for sheer entertainment value over genuine horror in its zombie sequences, and there isn’t really any moment in the movie that truly comes off as terrifying, or even unsettling.
Still, this silly spirit creates a movie that has plenty of flair, without needing to be gross or obnoxious, which would obviously override the Jane Austen flavouring that originally inspired this offbeat tale in prose. There’s a good chunk of cool, visually appealing moments, which I won’t spoil, as not all of them were given away in the trailers, even if several of them unfortunately were. Nonetheless, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fine example of making the most of a rather tiny budget, blending a functional period drama with some standout moments of sophisticated zombie violence.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t quite the subversive hit that its source novel was back in 2009, but this film adaptation is still competent and oftentimes fun, and comes recommended to the subset of viewers that enjoy both Jane Austen and tongue-in-cheek zombie romps. Those strictly coming for the zombies will have to sit through some less interesting Jane Austen-style sequences that are going to come off as filler, but at least the movie isn’t wanting for a perverse sense of authenticity, as if it would actually spring from the pen of Jane Austen, had she been alive during the modern zombie boom.
The proximity to a more ambitious genre send-up at the movies like Deadpool might end up making Pride and Prejudice and Zombies more of a disposable diversion than it no doubt hoped to be, before it’s outclassed by a more superior and ambitious project, but this movie is certainly competent, if not exemplary. If you enjoyed the novel, that’s another reason to enjoy the movie, if you can approach it without expecting something that fully realizes the story to the same degree of reliability.
Frankly, many movies that spend seven years in development hell, if not more, turn out a lot worse than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did. If nothing else, the movie defies expectation by being quite watchable and fun overall, and not like an obligatory movie release that the studio forced out, simply to make a meager effort to try and win back a bad investment. This story may have been done better as a book, both from Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, but as an offbeat date movie, it surprisingly works, even as an idea that’s so ambitiously bad that it somehow stumbles into a shocking degree of entertainment value.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies won't go down as a standout movie for 2016, but considering its lengthy stint in development hell, it delivers a surprisingly entertaining, if unevenly-paced final product.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
THE GOOD STUFF
Several appealing lead characters
Surprising flair to some of the zombie action
Funny spin on authentic Jane Austen writing
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Frustratingly uneven pacing
Several key personalities from the book are overshadowed
Some zombie enthusiasts may lament the lack of real horror