Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I'll be honest: I couldn't get through the novel of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Created by Seth Grahame-Smith based on the book by Jane Austen, the novel is a parody of sorts, stitching zombie-related material into Austen's (public domain) tale of English manners and romance. And on it's face that should be an idea that works -- certainly enough people, myself included, thought the idea was funny enough to warrant buying the novel. But then I tried to read it and it's just so boring. Tedious, in fact.
The issue with the novel is that Austen's prose doesn't blend with with Grahame-Smith's inserts. The text becomes jarring at times, for one, but it also pads out the content, making it all feel longer and much more tedious that either Austen's original novel, or just a novel about zombies, are on their own. I got about five chapters into the book and then stopped because it was becoming a cure for insomnia (read two pages, and then out like a light). A novel with this amusing an idea should have been funnier and more engaging than this.
Later on I picked up the comic book based on the novel and I found that a whole lot more palatable. That's probably because much of the dialogue in the novel was maintained for Austen's original work. Since that's largely what came over into the comics, with only short passages of Grahame-Smith's explanatory text, the whole production worked much better. Austen's lithe dialogue could stand opposite grisly zombie fighting depictions in the art, and the humor of the whole concept finally came through. Of course, with a novel big enough to warrant adaptations, a film was destined to follow, and that exactly what we got seven years after the book was released.
Like the comic, the movie invests fully in the weirdness of the concept of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It opens with a weird and silly animated prologue that sets up the basic story of the film: there was a zombie outbreak in the heart of London, the royal family constructed a wall around the city to keep the zombies (and all the riffraff) in, while the well-manned nobility escaped to the lands outside, the estates and quiet hamlets. However, the zombies still exist, and occasionally get through the barriers in place, meaning that even the nobility has to be on the look out for the infected and the undead.
Into that scenario we're introduced to Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), and her four sisters and the rest of the Bennet clan. Elizabeth, along with her sister Jane (Bella Heathcote), are both of marrying age, but while Jane easily falls for the dashing Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Lizzie has higher standards and won't just settle down to be the wife of someone that expects her to hang up her swords, and her books, and play the dutiful wife. She, like her sisters, trained Martial Arts of China (which puts them at a disadvantage among the nobility as the rest of England preferred the training of Japan) and they use their skills with deadly efficiency killing zombies.
What follows, then, are periodic moments of zombie slayer inter-cut with the drama of Lizzie meeting the aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), a zombie hunter of some renown, trying not to fall for him (and he likewise for her), as the two are inevitably drawn together. Society says she's not good enough for him, while Lizzie just wants someone that will treat her as an equal, and all of this while the zombies start to break through the barriers and threaten all of merry ol' England. Can a woman find love and still remain a zombie hunting machine in the hamlets of England?
The basic tale of Pride and Prejudice has been told in filmic form countless times (Wikipedia lists 13 proper adaptations along with dozens more "looser" films and shows, this movie included). What this movie has to do is mix the original story in with zombie hunting and keep both sides compelling in their own right. It's a trick the novel failed to do but that the comic was better at, and thankfully the film has a better idea of how to tread that tightrope and make a proper film out of the cobbled together story.
For the most part the movie leans heavily on the bones of Pride and Prejudice, once again giving us a mannered story of love, loss, and intrigue, all with Elizabeth Bennet at the center. Lilly James handles this role well, giving Lizzie enough of the spark this role needs to be a proper version of the character in any adaptation of the original source. She has fire, sarcasm, wit, and elegance, all the things the character needs to navigate English noble society and still retain her own vivacious personality. Her action skills are decent, if not quite as great, but James at least acts it with gusto, buying fully into her role and the action, so that even if she's not the best action star, she handles herself decently well.
That is, really, the highlight and the issue with the film. When it comes to the zombies the movie doesn't know quite what to do. They never seem like quite a threat, never get the screen time the love stories do. Like in the book, the zombies are awkwardly stitched in here, feeling like they're grafted onto a different story not meant for zombie action. Which, in fairness, is exactly what Price and Prejudice and Zombies is all about. This story is an awkward fit when it plays it straight, never quite settling into the groove of love and the undead.
But what makes it work better here than in the novel is that the movie at least acknowledges properly how silly it all is. While never breaking stride, the film presents plenty of opportunities where it clearly acknowledges its in on the joke, like when Mr. Darcy proposes to Lizzie and where, in the book they had a battle of words, here they have a real, physical fight while also sparring with words. Hearing the dialogue from the novel come out while Darcy and Lizzie punch and kick at each other, strikes just that right ludicrous tone to say, "yes, this is all really silly, isn't it?"
And then there's Matt Smith as Parson William Collins. The good Parson is an idiot in the original novel, someone shoved so far up his own ass he can't see how bad a match he'd be for Lizzie (and vice versa). He's the exact opposite man Elizabeth wants, someone that expects her to put away her books (and her swords, here) to be a "proper" wife. Smith, knowing full well how silly this whole movie is, buys into the concept fully, playing his character as a total buffoon, an absolute fop. He's the one character that seems to be having fun with how dumb this whole idea should be, and he plays it to perfection. Of course, Smith is a great actor in whatever he does, so the casting of him here was no mistake I'm sure.
When it gets going, and buys into the silliness of its subject, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies really works. It doesn't always hit that right note, never quite rising fully to meet the expectations of its concept, but it succeeds far more often than it fails, to be sure. Sadly, the biggest thing that held this movie back from being a success was timing. The novel came out in 2009 and by the time the film arrived, seven years later, audiences had already grown bored with the thought of adding zombies to Jane Austen. If this movie had been rushed into quick turn-around the second the novel was released, it might have succeeded.
Instead, by the time the movie came out everyone already knew what to expect: something a bit silly, but not strong enough to stand on its own. The film isn't great, just as everyone expected, but it's charming at times and does just enough to be worth the occasional re-watch. But whatever hopes the film might have had for a sequel (as hinted at by a mid-credits tag ending) were well and truly squashed. Expecting this film to be sequel-worthy was probably putting the cart before the horse. Austen never made a sequel, so what exactly would this movie have done if it could have had a second part?
Original material? In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Surely you jest.