It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.
The story begins in a Regency England threatened not by the French, but rather by unruly masses of zombies. The zombies are the result of a mysterious infection, which renders its victims “undead” and which is spread through biting living humans. In this Regency England, young ladies of accomplishment don’t just cover screens and speak French, they also must be skilled zombie warriors and speak either Japanese (preferably) or Chinese, depending on where they received their combat training. Thus it is not just rain which threatens Jane as she heads to Netherfield for dinner on horseback, but also zombie hordes in want of more brains.
Grahame-Smith credits Jane Austen as “co-author” of his book, and indeed, the book fairly well hews to Jane’s original story, mainly adding in zombie attacks at appropriate moments and providing what some readers (myself included) found to be a much more satisfying end for Mr. Wickham than merely being banished to New Castle to join the regulars. The movie, on the other hand, deviates from Grahame-Smith’s book (and from Jane Austen’s story) in a number of important ways. You will be glad to know that Mr. Collins still makes an offer to Lizzy, whose refusal still receives approval from Mr. Bennet. And Elizabeth still tries to kill Mr. Darcy after his rather rude proposal (actually, this fight scene is one of the more entertaining parts of the film) and fights Lady Catherine (England’s most successful zombie killer in the book and movie) with swords and daggers rather than words. However, Austen’s/Grahame-Smith’s story is substantially simplified and changed for the movie. There is no trip with the Gardiners to Pemberley, and Lydia does not run away with Wickham to London. Instead, the movie includes a completely new plot line involving a mysterious Lazarus Church, where some zombies are hiding out eating pig brains in the hope (we are told) of living in peaceful co-existence with living humans. Wickham is a liaison to this community and – gasp – the community is not so benign as it is made out to be. Elizabeth’s feelings for Darcy in this film version overtly surface when Darcy rescues Lydia from Lazarus, where she has been taken prisoner by Wickham. Elizabeth reveals her true feelings for Darcy as he lays apparently unconscious after a climactic zombie battle at the walled city of London. Wickham does get his just reward in the movie, but it’s not nearly as delightful (in the book he is rendered paralyzed and incontinent after a carriage accident).
Darcy is well played in the movie by Sam Riley, best known for his role as Ian Curtis in Control, a biopic about the lead singer of the post-punk bank Joy Division (OK, I had to Google Joy Division, too). A leading zombie killer, this Darcy doesn’t just put people off with his haughty behavior, he also disrupts dinner parties by loosing carrion flies to detect latent zombies (the flies can find undead flesh), and unceremoniously beheading them at the table. Lily James of Downton Abbey fame gives a feisty performance as Elizabeth, and is enjoyable as an action hero version of the Jane Austen heroine, who declares she will never trade her sword for a ring. Who-vians will recognize Matt Smith as Mr. Collins. Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) is the zombie-decimating Lady Catherine.
This movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is clearly more zombies than Pride and Prejudice, although it’s entertaining to note that, apparently, zombie aficionados aren’t entirely satisfied with it as a horror film:
“While the insertion of romantic elements may appeal to some, personally the added genre muddles the overall action and semi-Horror elements of the film. It’s important to note that the romantic theme of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is a critical component, a base originally introduced in the novel written by Jane Austen.”
For me, the actual “added genre” in the movie – zombies – worked as a parody. Much has already been written about sub-currents of dread in Pride and Prejudice related to threats of invasion and war, and the zombie threat clearly personifies that dread. But more importantly, I think the present day popularity of zombie-themed entertainment reflects our own sub-currents of dread in an increasingly uncertain world. Thus the zombie threat connects the modern audience directly with people in Jane’s world. And even the substituted plot line of the Lazarus Church (clearly added to up the zombie-ante) retains a connection to Austen’s original – can’t Darcy’s intervention to effect Lydia’s marriage be seen as rescuing her, in a sense bringing her back from the metaphorical “death” that her flight with Wickham imposed?
Don’t get me wrong. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not a good movie. But it is good fun.