NOTE: This review contains minor spoilers for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Lionsgate’s Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). Proceed at your own risk.
Last week I finally made it to see Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, the film adaptation of a historical monster mashup that I’ve written a lot about, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The venue? A Utopolis cinema in Almere, the Netherlands, complete with Dutch subtitles (about which I could probably write a whole separate blog post).
Having arrived rather late to the party, I already knew from various critical and word-of-mouth reviews that I shouldn’t expect too much from this adaptation. The problem that most critics seemed to have was that the film lacks a clear creative vision. This is a complaint I can agree with. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies simply tries to be too many things at once – horror, romance, comedy – without seemingly mastering any of these genres. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin was wrong in predicting that the film would ‘probably get its money’ regardless, however. It’s pretty much officially a box office flop.
The acting was competent overall, though not particularly stellar considering the long line of actors who have played these roles. Sam Riley, though smouldering, is no Colin Firth, and while (for me) Lily James definitely tops Kiera Knightly in the list of best Elizabeth Bennets, her character isn’t really done much justice in this particular adaptation. (Of course, few can beat the wonderful Ashley Clements in my books, of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) Matt Smith is the one shining exception to the general mediocrity of the performances in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, and his portrayal of Mr. Collins (‘Parson Collins‘) may be my favourite version of the character to date. Mrs. Bennet (played by Sally Phillips) also deserves a mention.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. The wardrobe and music were both consistently excellent, and did a brilliant job of negotiating the genre shifts between horror and costume drama. Likewise, the pop-up introduction to the zombie apocalypse that forms the film’s title sequence is wonderfully atmospheric, seamlessly blending Regency and horror aesthetics. In terms of the film itself, there were some nice visual touches and translations from page to screen. For example, the scene in which the Bennet sisters are introduced has them polishing guns rather than reading or sewing, which is passed off more subtly (and thus humorously) on screen than it ever could be on the page. A scene where Lizzy deftly plucks corpse flies from the air, kung-fu style, to the bemusement of Mr. Darcy also stands out as particularly, absurdly entertaining, as does a later scene where she and Darcy engage in both verbal and physical sparring.
Only the last of these scenes is actually to be found in Seth Grahame-Smith’s literary mashup, which brings me to another interesting point about this adaptation: it’s not actually particularly faithful to the novel it’s allegedly based on. The film version of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies features many entirely new subplots and character arcs. Sometimes this is clearly to meet the needs of a cinematic narrative, as opposed to a prose one (the final, climactic action sequence springs to mind here). Sometimes, however, the reasons for these changes are less obvious, and in a few cases simply baffling. This of course raises the question of the extent to which it is really an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or actually just another zombie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
This seems like a good moment to raise one of the points I found particularly problematic about Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. Namely, and it’s worth noting that Wired disagrees with me here, it may be the only Pride and Prejudice retelling I have ever seen in which Elizabeth Bennet is not really the hero. Instead, from the opening scene to the final camera pan, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies seems set on establishing Mr. Darcy as its action star. The story begins with him, he is given most of the good fight scenes, and the central conflict is between him and Wickham (Jack Huston), who is the film’s central antagonist (besides the zombie horde). This seems like a very odd choice considering the recent spate of financially and critically successful Hollywood films starring female action heroes (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spring instantly to mind). Lizzie Bennet was practically gift-wrapped, by both Austen and Grahame-Smith, as a spiritual continuation of this trend.
Likewise, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Headey) barely gets any action in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s novel (if it’s even fair to compare the two texts, considering how different they actually are), she gets an epic, fighting showdown with Elizabeth, but in the film Elizabeth fights one of de Bourgh’s goons instead, while the older woman looks on. The movie is full of big talk about women ‘trained for battle, not cooking,’ but in the end it simply fails to convincingly sell me this narrative. Lizzie Bennet may have been front and centre on the film’s posters, but somehow she fails to achieve the same level of agency in the film itself.
The class politics in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, however, are arguably much better developed in the film than they are in Grahame-Smith’s book, though even here there were a few missed opportunities. In the novel the link between the zombie plague and the lower classes is quite subtle. More so, certainly, than it is in Quirk Books’ follow-up novel Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009). Two plotlines – the one that focuses on a besieged London, and the one involving George Wickham’s Christian zombie ‘aristocrats’ – seem specifically designed to call into question the way the upper-class characters deal with their lower-class countrymen, most of whom are now zombies (the film doesn’t bother with the book’s dainty use of the term ‘unmentionables’).
A scene in which Wickham comes to Lady de Bourgh for money to continue his zombie rehabilitation project at St. Lazarus Church is especially interesting in this regard, framing the rich as cold, uncaring individuals who would much rather just kill the poor than relinquish a single cent – even if it might mean saving England. Wickham’s obsession with money and charity completely makes sense in this context. If it weren’t for a certain deus ex machina (zombina?) near the end of the film, I would have been inclined to champion him as the film’s real hero. In any case, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t come off looking very good in the area of zombie class politics.
Overall, then Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is a flawed film in which a lengthy, troubled production process really shows in the finished product. It’s not the film I would have made, but it still has its moments. It’s just a pity there weren’t many, many more of them.