Page to Screen is a monthly column in which Matt Melis explores how either a classic or contemporary work of literature made the sometimes triumphant, often disastrous leap from prose to film. This time, he departs with a stately bow and bloody hatchet for the zombie-infested manors of the 19th century English countryside.
[Warning: The following column contains grave film spoilers.]
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read,” promises Quirk Classics, the imprint responsible for Seth Grahame-Smith’s macabre reimagining of the Jane Austen classic. And in an era crawling with (perhaps plagued by) fan fiction, reboots, remixes, and parodies, his concept has found legs – albeit staggery, rotting zombie ones. Austen and Grahame-Smith’s mash-up, which recasts the quintet of Miss Bennets as Shaolin warriors trained to put down a festering zombie epidemic, spent more than 50 weeks decomposing on The New York Times bestseller list and has since spawned a best-selling prequel and now a silver-screen adaptation. What began as a literary joke – a mere necronovelty – has become an outbreak in its own right.
For those not among the horde already stricken by Grahame-Smith’s infectious novel, the author’s endeavor can best be described as making Pride and Prejudice about zombies while altering Austen’s original text as little as possible. And zombie fans may find themselves disappointed. Despite its annexed title and the flesh-rotting portrait on the book’s front cover, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is less a zombie novel and more a novel that happens to contain zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s English countryside, the undead are relegated to being occasional disturbances on carriage rides between manors, part of the landscape while glancing out through stately drawing room windows, or pests that might wander into the house should a door be carelessly left open. At this point, zombie encounters seem like a banality for the landed gentry, little more alarming than finding a spider in the bathtub or a field mouse in a teapot. What actually stands out about Grahame-Smith’s book — and not much does — is not the inclusion of zombies but rather his, at times, delightfully devilish modern take on the spirit of Austen’s original.
Traditionally, scholars have heaped the most praise on Austen for her realism and adeptness at handling plot. However, modern readers are more often prompted to examine her novels as social critiques of an unjust, classist, patriarchal society in which a gentlewoman’s only agency comes via marriage. Grahame-Smith taps into our modern frustrations by dispensing a base, lowbrow style of justice on the characters most obnoxiously embodying the social elements that Austen condemns. For instance, the shallow, lily-livered clergyman Mr. Collins, whose affections jump from Jane Bennet to Elizabeth to Charlotte Lucas in the same time it would take for him to prostrate himself and lick the soles of Lady Catherine’s shoes, finds himself unknowingly wed to an infected, three-quarters dead Charlotte, whose unintelligible grunting and defecating in corners go unnoticed. Mrs. Bennet (of whom the author asks, “Does she have a single redeeming quality?”) spends the majority of the novel vomiting in buckets. And Wickham, who looks to misuse the Bennets at every turn, ends up lame and bedridden, courtesy of Mr. Darcy, and forever soiling himself alongside the frivolous Lydia. These are crude comeuppances, indeed, but surely Austen would at least admire Grahame-Smith’s enthusiasm for acknowledging and attempting to right her society’s wrongs.
In a similar spirit, Grahame-Smith’s novel also empowers its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, to handle offenses in a manner off limits to Austen — one that any Pride and Prejudice fan must admit, if only secretly, satisfies on some primal level. Elizabeth, now imbued with both a warrior’s skill and mentality, can realistically harbor desires like wanting “to hold Darcy’s heart, still beating, in her hand.” There are few scenes in literature as callous as when Darcy, who Elizabeth correctly suspects has sabotaged Jane and Bingley’s relationship, meticulously lays out why Elizabeth is an unsuitable match for him just before proposing marriage. Finally, we have an Elizabeth who not only refuses Darcy, but can also deliver a roundhouse kick that sends the proud suitor flying across the room and into a mantelpiece. Likewise, when Lady Catherine, a renowned zombie slayer and a woman of far superior social standing, travels across country to ensure that Elizabeth will never marry Darcy, we find Elizabeth not only able to rise above her station but also brave enough to cross blades with a deadly adversary. It’s in moments like these that Grahame-Smith seems less like a meretricious prankster and more like a fan who has spent years wishing these characters would finally get what they truly have coming to them.
Pride + Prejudice + Zombies the film, unlike the book, aims to be a full-blown zombie affair. And with the undead being far more effective as visuals than creatures on a page, writer/director Burr Steers delivers what Grahame-Smith really couldn’t: decaying faces, exploding heads, and plenty of fine dining, all in vivid, wide-screen detail. We also see Austen’s plot burned (or at least charred) like rotting zombie flesh in order to configure an apocalyptic scenario that can carry the film; for instance, we see Wickham’s crimes escalate from elopement to high treason against humanity and Lady Catherine, always a crucial, looming reminder of the social pecking order, disappointingly rendered all but moot in this adaptation. As Blake Goble’s review suggests, the primary redeeming quality of Steers’ film is that it unabashedly commits to delivering just what the title suggests: Jane Austen + zombies. It doesn’t flinch or blush, which does make for some lowbrow fun.
Beyond that quality, we can also think of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies as adding to the recent (and often successful) trend of women taking leads in action-adventure movies. Austen’s Elizabeth has long been adored for being a strong female character, admired for her personal integrity, loyalty, and acuteness. In Austen’s original, she risks spinsterhood by turning down two advantageous proposals on principle (one from a fool and another from a then smug bastard who has wronged her loved ones), defies the influential Lady Catherine point-blank, and chooses Darcy only after both her mind and heart permit the attachment. However, both Grahame-Smith and Steers’ adaptations now allow Elizabeth to express that same strength through less traditional channels. In a time when Charlize Theron can lead a full-throttle escape across a post-apocalyptic wasteland and Daisy Ridley can pilot the Millennium Falcon through a galaxy far, far away, why can’t Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) draw a blade to protect herself and her loved ones from legions of zombies?
Early on, Steers naturally plays these scenes for irony and humor. We see five presumably delicate Bennet sisters giggling angelically in dresses as they polish and perform maintenance on muskets that comically dwarf them in stature, and we peep in on them preparing for a ball, which entails strapping blades to thighs as ceremoniously as tightening corsets. However, when they enter a ballroom in flying-vee formation as an armed and deadly assassination squad determined to dispatch a zombie cotillion, Steers drops any joke as quickly as the Bennets fell their rotting adversaries, blood splattering on their elegant dresses and the camera alike.
Steers’ film also modernizes the eventual partnership between Elizabeth and Darcy (Sam Riley). In the midst of the zombie outbreak, Darcy saves Elizabeth, but she also saves him. They fight both alongside each other and against one another throughout the film. Elizabeth’s excellence on the battlefield shifts the relationship closer to equilibrium — toward a modern concept of marriage as two equal partners sharing life’s load (or in this case, life’s kills). Here, we find Elizabeth valued as much for her swordsmanship and courage as her beauty and sensibility and Darcy for his character more so than his fortune. Sometimes all it takes is a little zombie apocalypse to recalibrate and repair a society’s gender norms.
Halfway through my Pride + Prejudice + Zombies screening, a critic near me muttered a cliché that in part led to this column. “Jane Austen would be spinning in her grave,” he whispered to someone. “You mean like a zombie?” the other person responded sardonically. As I sat through the closing credits, I wondered what Jane Austen might think of our latest interpretation of her most beloved heroine, now a zombie slayer. Part of me, like that critic, envisioned Austen heading straight for the aisle, but another part of me thinks maybe she’d see Elizabeth Bennet, blade unsheathed and bold spirit intact, and settle down to watch for awhile — Red Vines in one hand, Brown Bess in the other.