Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
One reason Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is so beloved lies in how it presents problems often dismissed as trivial or dramatically non-urgent – the business of courting and marriage and negotiating labyrinths of decorum – as matters charged with life-and-death importance, capable of leading to utter ruination or total triumph in worldly and emotional terms. Seth Grahame-Smith’s “mash-up” take on Jane Austen’s beloved classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, took an idea that sounds like a comic suggestion on how to sell the classic work to teenage boys, and purveyed it with the not entirely negligible conceit of exchanging necessary armament with rapier-like wit in such social spheres for literal armament with rapiers. The result was only a one-joke book that found popularity because everyone bought it as a funny gift for a friend’s birthday, and it’s not that surprising that the film edition failed to light a box office bonfire: if there’s two demographics that rarely overlap, it’s gore comedy lovers and fans of Austen. Bringing it to the big screen, writer-director Burr Steers, who once made the esteemed Igby Goes Down (2001), had a strange and unenviable task.
It’s one Steers rises to with surprising composure, if not always faultless invention. Grahame-Smith’s book injected occasional fights with the undead and references to gruelling martial arts training for the Bennett sisters in amongst Austen’s deathlessly elegant prose. Here Steers goes considerably further in trying to mesh the familiar tale with a more elaborate and considered plot involving the eruption of the walking dead into the genteel English garden in a manner that avoids outright satire. Such blends aren’t entirely unheard of. After all, look at Val Lewton’s classic I Walked With a Zombie (1943), which transposed Jane Eyre to the Caribbean and threw in, yes, zombies, or Fred Wilcox’s The Tempest-gone-alien epic Forbidden Planet (1956). The opening scene does suggest a path a genuinely peculiar, original mockery of the source text might have taken, as Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) enters a prim and cheery gathering of toffs playing cards and identifies a zombie hidden in their midst. Polite entertainment segues into gory and punitive violence: only Steers’ slightly heavy hand frustrates the satiric tang of the jarring disparity.
As ever, in spite of this radically different and dangerous version of Georgian England, Mrs Bennett (Sally Phillips) is trying to marry off her gaggle of girls as their estate appears destined to devolve upon unctuous cleric Mr Collins (Matt Smith), much to Mr Bennett’s (Charles Dance) disinterest. Only here the Bennett filles – Jane (Bella Heathcote), Lizzy (Lily James), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), and Mary (Millie Brady) – have all been rigorously schooled by their father in deadly arts to help keep themselves alive in a land where zombiedom is an everyday fact of life and the King has London protected by elaborate fortifications. The opening credit sequence is perhaps the film’s highpoint – I don’t mean that as faint praise – as Steers contextualises the zombie plague as a kind of colonialist blowback, and illustrates the run of events in animated displays in the style of old Punch cartoons. I couldn’t help but wonder if Steers here hadn’t stumbled upon a brilliant metaphor for the way syphilis, an import from the new world, helped create the kind of rigid social constructs Austen analysed centuries later. Well, no. But it’s an idea, and those don’t often get stirred by such multiplex films. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies skirts outright parody but also doesn’t completely give itself over to the earnestness of some other straight-faced takes on outre ideas, like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). It is, after all, based on a novel that is essentially a comedy.
In this take, Lady Catherine DeBourgh’s (who else but Lena Headey) intimidating qualities are augmented as she’s recast as an eye-patch-clad, nationally famous bad-ass zombie killer with her own little court. Social snobbery has found a new way to manifest, as the rich take their schooling in martial arts in chic Japan whilst wiser folk like the Bennetts submit to the less fashionable but more intensive rigours of Chinese schools. Thus Elizabeth and her siblings have the benefits of Shaolin training whilst the fearsome, phlegmatic Darcy wields a samurai sword and hacks away at the undead with punitive disregard. Darcy likes to track down zombies able to still pose as human with a vial filled with flies eager to land on dead flesh, leading to a cunning conflation of Austen’s admiration for a light touch and kung-fu flick cliché, as Darcy uses his pets to see if Jane is infected only for Lizzy to snatch them one by one from the air and return them to him carefully mashed. The course of zombie infection as Steers presents it depends on consumption of human brains. The possibility of coexistence with zombies able to retain their human personalities by eating substitutes eventuates – but of course, not all human personalities are preferable to zombies, like that of everyone’s favourite rotter, Mr Wickham (Jack Huston), who tries to mediate between the two communities to the scornful dismissal of Lady Catherine and Darcy. Rumour has it the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Antichrist are abroad in the land, and Lizzy has recurring visions of four top-hat-wearing men. Meanwhile it becomes clear Wickham is tied closely to the zombie plague’s seemingly remorseless advance.
To certain extent all this loony invention amplifies aspects already present in Austen’s book and taken a step forward by Joe Wright’s excellent 2005 adaptation, which reset the book during the Napoleonic War. That was the time when Austen wrote her first draft, the English social atmosphere was charged with an insular mindset, an inarguable motive for adopting rigid hierarchies was on hand in the post-revolutionary carnage, and the peculiarly intensity of communal life in such epochs enlarged all actions. Steers’ cast is excellent and quite perfect for the material, to an extent that seems bound to extract many a moan that it was a pity they hadn’t been cast in a straight-up Austen filming. Smith in particular has a ball pushing Collins’ gormless insensitivity and unconscious clownishness to the edge of genuinely slapstick. James has the physical and verbal dexterity to play Lizzy exceedingly well, and she and Heathcote make for a dashing pair of warrior siblings. The film around them is however beset by a peculiar, contradictory problem. Leaving aside the probability that such a situation would probably have transformed the society Austen depicted in to such a degree that the rules she worked painstakingly to describe would be radically revised, Steers’ version works best when it cleanly translates motifs from the original. Darcy’s assessment of Lizzy’s form and character takes in both her spirited eyes and her muscular yet still feminine arms in the midst of battle. Mr Bennett is more interested in making sure his daughters can survive walks to town than he is in the more distant and possibly illusory problems of coupling. Darcy’s first, disastrous marriage proposal to Lizzy becomes a literal as well as figurative clash of characters. Jane and Lizzy’s cross-country traversing, the danger of which was all too immediate in Austen’s pre-penicillin days but now seems incomprehensible, is given new immediacy by the presence of flesh-eating monsters.
At the same time, whilst Steers charts weird new zones to pilot the story through, the adaptation is still too close, creating real problems when he tries to mesh important plot beats from Austen with his own invention. The last third of the film begins to fragment badly as a result, with perhaps some production tinkering adding to the problem. Those great opening credits and some of the story underpinnings hint at a satirical programme that never really rolls out, an equation of the Enlightenment’s blind spots and English social niceties as part and parcel with the nakedly abusive exploitation such institutions were built on. Instead, Steers emphasises a puckish if familiar take on feminist emancipation that sees his period England emerge entirely into a matriarchy of bad-ass ladies, one where Lady Catherine and Lizzy eventually convert into allies thanks to Lizzy’s fighting pith, and even if a gal can’t inherit the house, at least she can still whoop a field full of walking dead. Which of course doesn’t make much sense in the context of a narrative based in the strictures of a patriarchal society, but never mind.
Meanwhile Steers trucks in ideas he can’t properly handle – the particularities of this universe’s zombie plague and the way the malady takes control of people mount up in piles of storyline he can’t hope to encompass properly. Steers should probably have strayed off even further from Austen’s narrative whilst still honouring its essence. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies falls apart precisely because it can’t work out its priorities, and builds to a clumsy climax where Steers reveals a lack of action chops and, more disappointingly, no sense of how to bring his project home with a sense of its own gallivanting ridiculousness: the finale begs for a big communal battle where we can see all the characters bring their gifts of violence and camaraderie to the table, but instead the rescues and fights we get are very ordinary. Steers just doesn’t have the gusto for this sort of thing young Peter Jackson wielded. But the good-natured qualities of the film as a whole still ultimately cheered me. Perhaps it’s just the happy zing of Austen’s lines mixed with the effervescent sexiness of its collective of babes wielding blades, but compared to the cynical reductiveness currently being critically feted in action cinema like John Wick (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), or the deeply facetious fake wit of a dude-bro salt lick like Deadpool (2016), I found this a comparative tonic.