Review: 'Pride & Prejudice & Zombies' Has a Wealth of Heart & Brains
by Jeremy Kirk
February 5, 2016
If only we could resurrect writer Jane Austen and ask her zombified corpse what it thinks of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the 2009 mash-up novel put together by Seth Grahame-Smith. Using her 1813 classic about love and aristocracy as a basis, Grahame-Smith fused the romance novel with all the brain-munching aspects the modern, zombie sub-genre has to offer. Surprisingly enough, the mash-up novel was a success with both critics and audiences, and now the beloved story of engagements and the undead has made its way to the big screen. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted and directed by Burr Steers, follows through on the novel's success, providing a ball of humor, romance, and an abundance of exploding heads. It's enough to satisfy anyone not beholden to either side of the mix.
All the elements of Austen's original novel are present. Lily James stars as Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five daughters who live with their parents on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's country estate. Mrs. Bennet's only desire in life is to see her daughters married off to wealthy socialites before their father succumbs to old age. One such wealthy gentleman is Mr. Darcy, played by Sam Riley, for whom Elizabeth has admiration from afar. That is, until light moments of tripping over one's own tongue puts the two at odds. Oh, and, by the way, there's been a zombie war raging for years.
That's the first element to Grahame-Smith's original mash-up that keeps the entire idea of the project interesting. He doesn't just tell Austen's original novel while throwing in a zombie uprising on the side. He, and Steers, with this adapted screenplay weave the two, main aspects together rather seemlessly. Due to the war against the undead, England is practically bankrupt from building their defenses which includes a wall built entirely around London. The children of the aristocrats are sent to Asia to learn martial arts and swordsmanship, with the five Bennet daughters each having their own talents for battle.
Characters, motivations, and relationships lifted from Austen's original story never seem short-changed or brushed over. The zombie presence is always evident in the story's background, but relationships are given room to breathe and blossom. The comedic timing of Steers' film hits the exact spot needed, as does his pacing of action. The film moves quickly, yet it's never rushed. Sure, fans of the original Pride and Prejudice will likely cringe at just the idea, but, to the credit of Grahame-Smith and Steers, the tone and themes of Austen's work seem complete here.
The zombie element, on the other hand, is a little watered down, and that goes beyond the PG-13 rating. You wouldn't know that fact by all the heads exploding here, but, more than that, Steers' screenplay doesn't fully develop some of the smarter ideas brought up in Grahame-Smith's mash-up. Including an aristocracy within the zombie ranks was a sharp choice, but Steers' film casually mentions this and hardly ever realizes it. The presence of four, dark figures wearing top hats to symbolize the coming apocalypse makes for some terrifying imagery, but a more satisfactory payoff is easily imagined in the face of the film's conclusion.
More able to shine than the horror elements are the absolutely capable actors and actresses playing Austen's charming characters. James and Riley have little romantic chemistry, but their comaraderie becomes more apparent when Elizabeth and Darcy are taking out the walking dead together. Their wit is also a plus, though the clear winner for comedic performance here is Matt Smith as Mr. Collins, heir to the Bennet estate who has eyes for Elizabeth. Smith plays the part with so much lovable arrogance - if such a characteristic even exists - you're unsure whether to hug him or toss him to a zombie horde.
Though the rest of the cast never rises to match Smith, there is a nice slate of memorable performances found in the rest of the film. Lena Headey plays Lady Catherine de Bourgh, scourge of the zombie horde, with complete confidence and anger, while Charles Dance and Sally Phillips as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, respectively, bring a loving charm to their roles. Jack Huston as George Wickham brings a subtle glee to the part, particularly in the additions Grahame-Smith gave the character.
With the ability this cast has to do justice to Austen's character, part of you might desire to see this version of Pride and Prejudice without the notion of rampaging zombies or martial arts attacks. Still, Grahame-Smith succeeded in meshing his idea of a zombie apocalypse with Austen's original story, and, with his own cinematic adaptation, Steers delivers an enjoyable work of escapism with a wealth of heart and brains. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn't likely to stand the test of time like Austen's novel, but everyone involved gets their due credit for effort. Now, about resurrecting Jane Austen…