By M.V. Moorhead
Back in 2009 Jane Austen collaborated with another young writer. A fellow named Seth Grahame-Smith added cannibal ghouls and martial arts action scenes to Austen’s 1813 masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, and called the results Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The stunt was a hit, giving Grahame-Smith a career, and starting a less-than-welcome vogue for such literary or historical “mashups”—Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters followed, for instance, as did Grahame-Smith’s own Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.
Even though her participation was posthumous and without consent, from a literary point of view Austen was the winner in this odd collaboration.
I listened to the audiobook of P&P&Z (excellently read by the droll, deadpan Katherine Kellgren) some years ago on a road trip, and as it went into its homestretch, I noticed myself sighing with impatience every time the text shifted to a horror scene.
Such are Austen’s chops that I would have preferred to drop the ludicrous zombie gimmick and just hear how her story turned out—even though I’d already read it.
Still, on its own terms this one-joke book was a reasonably funny joke, and now it’s been made into a fairly lavish movie. Adapted and directed by the American Burr Steers (of 17 Again), it departs freely from Grahame-Smith’s storyline, but considering what he did to Austen, Grahame-Smith hardly has grounds to complain.
Wary-eyed Lily James of last year’s Cinderella plays heroine Elizabeth Bennett. As in the book, Lizzy and her sisters are in the market for well-to-do husbands, but they have also been trained in the fighting arts of the East, allowing them to wield swords and dismember any hungry undead that should wander into a country dance or accost them as they’re on their way to make a social call. Sam Riley, excellent as the title character’s sidekick in Maleficent, here plays Darcy, who can’t help but fall for Lizzy despite his pride.
Most of the other major characters are retained, though often in wildly different form. The scoundrel Wickham (Jack Huston), for instance, is a proponent of a zombie appeasement scheme, while haughty Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) is a formidable zombie-hunter with a chic eyepatch. Charles Dance gets to play Mr. Bennett relatively straight, but Matt Smith camps up Mr. Collins to a sketch-comedy degree.
In short, P&P&Z the movie is outrageously silly. It isn’t very scary, but the squeamish should be forewarned that unlike 2013’s World War Z it is quite gory at times, with some inventively gruesome sight gags.
Overall, I thought it sustained itself for its entire length a little better, maybe, than the book, because it brings the material more of a sense of…well, female empowerment. Masterly as Jane Austen’s works are, there’s something troubling about the way these tales of near-powerless women anxiously waiting for husbands are often used by modern readers as fantasy fodder—a romanticizing of social and economic strictures to which Austen, for all her talent, had no choice but to conform.
It would be a little much to call P&P&Z, by contrast, a feminist film. Admittedly, the warrior-woman archetype comes with its own set of male fantasies and presumptions. But something about the movie’s Regency-era ladies arming themselves under their Empire waist gowns feels bracing and liberating. It seems possible, somehow, that Jane would approve.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is rated PG-13 and plays at Tempe Marketplace, Arizona Mills, Chandler Fashion 20 and other multiplexes Valleywide