There’s a great running gag in Robert Altman’s The Player in which Griffin Mill, a studio green-lighter and “friend to writers,” is pitched with odd movies ideas. Parades of knuckleheads constantly try to hype Griffin by mixing recognizable films/tropes/slogans. They’re appallingly bad yet laughably curious ideas, the gag being that recycling ideas Frankensteins inferior films. Prophetic too. Among them: “So it’s The Gods Must Be Crazy, but the Coke bottle is now a television actress.”
“Like Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate.”
“What if you remade Pride and Prejudice with Zombies?”
Actually, that last one wasn’t in The Player, but it really could have been. That’s the strange state of genre mingling for mass appeal. And it’s that now-conventional sweet spot of doubling down on familiarities that brings us Pride and Prejudice AND Zombies on the big screen. A lowering of Jane Austen by adrenalizing her prose with ninja nonsense and cranial kabooms? That’s madness and a bastardization! But here’s the thing about Burr Steers’ adaptation of an alternative adaptation: it strides in with near-total commitment to its literary heresy and embraces a sort of camp quality that’s hard to abase. Jane Austen’s not rolling in her grave. She’s alive, albeit among the undead, and probably happy to be mingling with those kids and their zombie things in 2016.
The CliffsNotes on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (and lord knows this guy needed ‘em…) go something like this: Elizabeth Bennet is one of five sisters coming of age in 19th century England, learning of morality and manners and men. What Seth Graham-Smith’s 2009 novel did, thanks to a little low-budget thing called “public domain,” is mash up Austen’s story with zombie scenes. Is this a sin to take Austen’s feminist prose and turn it into an almost drunken dare while cashing in on her good name? Kinda. However, for the film adaptation of Grahame-Smith and Austen’s work, writer-director Burr Steers amps up the gimmick into a B-movie feat of bodices, blades, and a Lara Croft-like figure kicking butt and taking heads. Tact and wit lose out to far showier and cinematic ribaldry. And that’s just fine. Wait’ll you see horses heroically run away from digitally crafted explosions, for example.
Miss Bennet is played by Lily James (last year’s Cinderella) and is a fierce, proud, and standoffish heroine. James plays with a stiff smirk and whole lot of smack, ready to whip out a sword, but instead is often wooed rather irritably by the fuddy-duddy affections of several suitors. There’s Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), an uptight warrior with the mop top of Barnabus Collins and the black coat fanaticism of Blade. Parson Collins (Matt Smith, happily hammy), is seeking to acquire Miss Bennet’s estate, and her heart via woefully embarrassing wooing. And George Wickham (Jack Huston) is a local militiaman, with a shady past and ties to Darcy. But Bennet’s got even more sinister and repulsive things to deal with than preening boys: zombies. Bennet becomes crucial against a zombie uprising, and she must figure out who to trust fast in a rapidly escalating war on the undead.
This movie is action, horror, and comedy by way of Hogwarts, and it’s frightfully fun. Occasionally scary, and even scarier for how often the film works.
The film keeps momentum, little scares, and crazy visuals running right along, and most appealingly, all the characters intertwine with a sort of school yard gossip regalia, and Austen’s soap opera theatrics have managed to stay alive in this odd form. Miss Bennet has always been iconic, and curiously enough this iteration makes for a hellish heroine rather than a prime one. It’s a testament to Lily James’ commitment to the character and leadership throughout the film that she guides through bloody waters and acts as someone the viewer comes to trust and admire.
Repurposing her, not to mention the source material, into the lowbrow parlance of our times is not without its merits and amusements. Yes, it’s all very crass to watch Bennet and sisters be ogled as they place weapons in their garters and to watch heads explode in carefully constructed manners as not to offend to the MPAA, but the film always plays with a wink and a nod, and it’s hard not to appreciate Steers’ efforts. A comedy of manners and femininity gets bisected by gnarly effects, and the two-tone approach works in its way.
And who knows? Maybe this will get kids to read a damn book.
The Austen first. Hopefully.
I promise I will.