Jonathan Rich writes for Bleeding Cool…
The first time I tried to teach Jane Austen’s Brit Lit classic Pride and Prejudice, the teenagers I introduced to the tome absolutely hated it.
In fairness, those high school seniors had about a month left in their final year of primary school and most already knew if and where they were going to university. Just about any choice from the approved literary cannon at that time probably would have had the same result.
The unfortunate honor students on whom I forced Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bentley, and their British brethren that semester simply could not have cared less either about the melodrama within the book’s pages or its author’s musings on the importance of the written word.
They did, however, tolerate Keira Knightley’s star turn in the 2005 big-screen adaptation, so I was at least able to expose them to this important tale in one form they almost seemed to enjoy.
Had I been able to provide the new big-screen version of Pride+Prejudice+Zombies created by the same architects as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in reward for navigating Austen’s source material, perhaps we could have ended their academic year on a happier note.
However there is no doubt in my mind there would have still been some complaints as this decaying whole is a lot less than the sum of its rotting literary parts.
Director Burr Steers (Charlie St. Cloud, Igby Goes Down) gives his audience exactly what the title advertises: a PG-13 mashup of Austen’s novel and TV’s Walking Dead, but with a lot less gore than one would expect.
The story starts with an inventive alternate history lesson quickly explaining how zombies came to threaten the English countryside before it begins to blend Austen’s review of proper English etiquette in the 19th century with gory special effects shots of the undead.
Sadly, the film never truly achieves a perfect palate balancing both halves as important character moments are often lost when the director abruptly changes gears between these two destinations and the end result does not take the viewer on a very long or very enlightening journey.
This tale of warrior daughters juxtaposed with masticated brains and Shaolin fighting style does make for almost two tolerable hours at the multiplex, but those wanting any sort of character development or innovation at the cinema probably aren’t looking for it here in the first place.
Though there are some interesting quirks in this version (particularly how carrion flies can be used to detect those who have incurred zombie bites and the Bennet sisters employing Chinese martial arts to ward off zombie hordes), the acting remains too rigidly rooted in the heart of stoic historical drama to ever fully be any fun.
My take on teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has always been to examine what the work has to say both about the role of social relationships in a rather repressed time and the power of the written word when it was written. Brief flickers of these themes can be seen in Pride+Prejudice+Zombies if you squint hard enough, but the film is all too complacent in trying to shock the audience with relatively tame zombie makeup shots which never fully fill the frame with any sense of urgency. Undead antagonists similar to those from George Romero’s films never offer much more than moans emanating from extras smeared with fake blood and ill-fitting wigs to threaten those about whom the audience is supposed to care. Any sort of suspense simply seemed to have no sense of what was at stake for the characters in the story or those in the theater watching all this transpire.
The worst part of it all is that this fun form of fiction sharply fails where its predecessor Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter succeeded in eschewing historical accuracy in favor of embracing the inherent humor to be had.
Pride+Prejudice+Zombies stubbornly insists on ignoring the inherent humor in the most ridiculous of situations and never rises much above grave level to enlighten, inform, or entertain its audience with a quirky take on either Austen’s book or the one also co-authored by Grahame-Seth in AL:VH.
One would hope this version of Austen’s strong female protagonist would at least give a sly wink to the audience about the oddity of her predicament, but when Lilly James (TV’s War and Peace, Downton Abbey) is on the screen she routinely plays the zombie apocalypse in Hertfordshire with a stiff upper lip. Only on rare occasions does she exhibit any emotion other than woodenly waiting for her stunt double to arrive to deliver rote physical reactions to repeated undead threats. This Lizzie largely concentrates more on her martial arts mastery than delivering any of Austen’s determined dialogue and thus the social commentary remains lost without any translation offered.
The same is true for the presumably intended comic relief embodied in the character of Parson Collins who was never fully realized by Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame. Until the almost bitter end of the film, it seems as if he signed a contract to be in a stage version of Austen’s book and his scenes were digitally inserted into this tepid theatrical monster movie.
There are some chuckles in repurposing Austen’s dialogue (I particularly chuckled at the lines “zombies or no zombies, a young lady must think of marriage” and “Mr. Darcy, you are as unfeeling as the undead”), but those moments are too few and far between. Watching Pride and Prejudice’s powerful discourse on female empowerment get supplanted by weak wire-fu and second-rate scares left me sorely underwhelmed.
Ultimately, P+P+Z is the kind of movie audiences are already predisposed to either embrace or from which to flee. Those looking for mindless entertainment will find this film does fill the void, though not completely. Those wanting an intelligent take on the source material will see premonitions of brilliance which never materialize. Those expecting an experience similar to the goofy thrill ride which was Abraham Lincoln: Zombie Hunter will definitely leave disappointed.
Finally, those hoping for the romantic revelations delivered by Austen’s book, the hugely popular 1995 BBC miniseries, or the scaled down version staring the strong female lead from those Pirates of the Caribbean flicks will be left wanting too. Attempts to make this Lizzy Bennet a relatable heroine were significantly dulled due to a lack of skill on the part of the participants.
One of my students actually supplemented our study of Pride and Prejudice with a cursory reading of Pride+Prejudice+Zombies, but I’m not certain even he would have been among the crowd who stopped in their tracks to view a post-credit scene from the feature film.
He certainly would not have been scared at any point before then, nor would he have felt he missed anything by seeing the movie rather than reading the book.
He may not have hated both interpretations equally, but I’m not sure the experience would have changed him in the way art, be it classic literature or a well-executed horror film, holds the potential to do so for those who dare encounter it.
I do know he would have liked the Shaolin kung fu sections though, because even the most hardcore lover of literature or horror films would have to admit those parts were pretty kick ass
Final grade: C; reading either book would be a better use of your time and effort.
Jonathan Rich is a freelance journalist, high school educator, and professed comic book nerd working in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. He writes about entertainment and pop culture for various print and web publications, includingbleedingcool.com.