In 2009, Seth Grahame-Smith published “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” adding the undead to the classic Jane Austen novel. The book found widespread commercial success, even spawning copycats like Ben H. Winter’s “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monster,” or Seth Grahame Smith’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” That success propelled the book to a movie deal, with Natalie Portman slated to play the lead.
Unfortunately, it has been a long time since 2009, and the movie adaptation has lost Portman, the momentum of the book’s success and the novelty that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” enjoyed. Furthermore, the film, though undoubtedly well-acted and well-shot, misses the mark slightly on its most crucial element—zombies. The obvious restraint in the action shots, combined with the rather lackluster special effects, creates a zombie infestation that feels entirely nonthreatening. This might be a product of the six years of development hell; Burr Steers, director, is the last in a line of directors who either left or were dropped from the position.
Incredibly, however, the movie performs well as an homage to the Austen novel — though the zombies are lacking, both pride and prejudice present themselves in full measure. The plot and thematic elements of Austen’s iconic novel remain nearly untouched, with the zombies actually, in many cases, serving to highlight some of Austen’s themes — the ironic commentary on the conventions of marriage, courtship and social class is starkly illuminated in the light of a zombie horde. In fact, nearly all the dialogue derives straight from the original novel, though the lines achieve a new comedic significance when uttered between brain-bashing blows.
The story, as Austen fans and sufferers of high school English know, center around the marriage opportunities of the Bennet family. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), like all of her sisters, has been trained in the Shaolin martial arts. She uses these skills to great effect against the zombie invasions of her home and country and in doing so catches the eye of Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a similarly deadly warrior. However, they clash on multiple subjects: the trustworthiness of George Wickham (Jack Huston), the suitability of Jane Bennet (Bella Heathcote) and Mr. Bingley (Douglas Boothe) and the greater school — Japan or China — of the deadly arts. “Pride and Prejudice” has always been about the conflict between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and the zombie situation seems to only aggravate that.
The movie itself is visually successful. The rolling hills of English countryside, combined with the sets and furnishings of classic English castles, stand as a beautiful contrast to the violent gore of the undead horde. Furthermore, the costume design is striking and memorable. The dance and hosting scenes are, of course, rife with pretty dresses and handsome uniforms. However, the travelling attire of the Bennet sisters possesses a decidedly martial appearance, undoubtedly a nod to the prowess of the warrior sisters in battle.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” also possesses a strong, engaging set of cast members who play their roles straight, allowing the absurdity of the situation to carry the humor. James manages the Elizabeth role with poise and charisma, and acts as a strong foil to Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy. The two capture the classic awkwardness of the relationship, along with the mutual respect. However, the star performance is Matt Smith’s portrayal of the foppish and feminine Mr. Collins, who received the biggest laughs in the theatre.
Ultimately, the movie was surprisingly successful, despite the odds being stacked against it. Fans of “Pride and Prejudice” will appreciate the respect toward the source. More casual moviegoers may appreciate the easy access to Austen’s work, made palatable by the “cool” factor of sexy ninja ladies battling the undead. I have always believed “Pride and Prejudice” to be criminally undervalued for its humor, and it is gratifying to see its humor emphasized on the big screen. Ultimately, however, the movie is nothing revolutionary — it’s a well performed mashup of genres, a couple years after they were popular.