Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Is One Braaaaaaainy Mashup
When it was published in 2009, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was like nothing people had seen before, infusing Jane Austen’s classic novel of subversion with a healthy dose of shambling undead zeitgeist. Pre-release attention from the likes of NPR led to public curiosity, which made Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel hugely popular—and in turn led to a cottage industry of public-domain-literature-plus-monsters mashup fiction.
Now, almost seven years after the book’s release, director Burr Steers’ film adaptation of PPZ is hitting theaters. In those intervening years, so many other genre mashup movies have come along that Zombies’ original concept seems almost rote. (The adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, for example, made it to theaters in 2012.) But Steers’ film stands out; unlike other high-low pulp cocktails, this one happens to also the most fiercely feminist version of Jane Austen’s novel ever filmed.
Pumping Up Pride’s Feminist Message
For his part, Grahame-Smith is quick to reject the idea that Austen’s novel didn’t have those elements to begin with. “No feminism has been added to the book that wasn’t there in the original,” he says. “It’s just taking what Austen already did and injecting it with steroids.”
But it’s undeniable that the monstrous conceit of Zombies doesn’t change the stakes for the Bennett sisters—and, in fact, give them more agency. In Austen’s novel, Mrs. Bennett frets constantly about marrying off her daughters, because as women they cannot inherit any property. In the movie version of events, England is a beleaguered shell of a country in the midst of a zombie outbreak, with small outposts holding out against the walking dead. Mr. Bennett (played by Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance) has raised his daughters to be fierce warriors, insisting they are “trained for battle, not cooking.”
Zombies roam the countryside, and any carriage ride or public ball could turn into a brain feast, so survival is the number one concern for everyone. There’s still a streak of classism—Charles Bingley’s sisters, for example, look down on the Bennetts for receiving their training from a Shaolin temple in China instead of in Japan like the upper classes. But the sisters aren’t simply competent survivors like the rest of their peers—they’re superwarriors, slicing apart zombie hordes and rescuing men left and right. In a world where survival is a daily struggle against a supernatural phenomenon, the Bennetts don’t need men to protect them; they can afford to seek a partner based on genuine affection.
And in this telling, second daughter Lizzie (Lily James, in a role that’s the polar opposite of her turn as Cinderella last year) doesn’t just verbally spar with monster hunter Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley). She out-duels him with a sword, and even impresses Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey, another Game of Thrones veteran) with her strength. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie stood out because her wit and outspokenness is at odds with the way society insisted women act. In Zombies, she’s even more extreme, finding that her courage increases with every attempt to intimidate her.
Zombies’ Most Empowering Change
As with any novel-to-film adaptation, there were many changes to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the most significant being that it turns the otherwise languid third act into a battle royale. But it’s what happens in the midst of that scrum that might be the movie’s most female-empowering change. Austen’s novel ended with Lizzie giving in to the feelings that had taken hold of her the first moment she saw Darcy—going from being repulsed by Darcy’s words to being impressed by his actions to help her family, and ultimately to falling for him. It’s as confusing as it is controversial, coming as it does after she so completely demonstrates her independence.
The book of Zombies followed Austen’s original footsteps, having Lizzie give up her sword in order to marry Darcy. Steers’ film, though, rejects that ambiguity outright: The climactic battle sees Lizzie and her sister Jane leading the charge in the film’s largest battle against the zombies. Jane saves her beloved Bingley—a capable but frightened officer—and during the ensuing wedding ceremony, the officiant asks the brides if they take their respective men to be their husbands—but not the other way around. This time around, the women are the agents of their own destinies.
Smith says his goal was staying as close to Austen’s story as possible, to see “how closely I could hew to the original text and surgically graft on a hopefully seamless genre piece.” But since the film has already transcended static text in favor of the graphic sensory overload of genre films, it goes even further in characterization to emphasize how independent and in-control the Bennetts deserve to be.
More Than Just Another Mashup
In the subsequent years since the book was a hit, mashup ideas have come and gone. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter went from page to screen in only two years. The Walking Dead remains a juggernaut for AMC. World War Z is getting a sequel, thanks to box office receipts that trumped its middling reviews. If the same cultural fascination that surrounded Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had also put the first incarnation of the film—starring Natalie Portman and directed by David O. Russell—on the fast track to theaters, perhaps it would’ve presaged the zombie craze much like the book.
But even if it doesn’t have the same finger-on-the-pulse feel that Smith’s novel did in 2009, Steers’ film is still far more complex than the silliness its title suggests. This is no Snakes on a Plane. It’s a work of recombination that transcends the “mashup” pigeonhole by adding strains of Kill Bill, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Thelma and Louise. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, or even be logically consistent—but it’s still far more vital than its premise suggests. And it contains the best simultaneous marriage proposal/fight scene of all time.