By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Published April 1, 2009
Date reviewed: May 4, 2009
It’s hard to imagine a 2009 title more anticipated than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The concept is nothing short of brilliant, combining Jane Austen’s classic novel of society and romance with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” The possibilities seemed endless, ranging from half the main characters having their heads cracked open to windows of a manor house cracked open with decaying fists. Indeed, it seemed like something that could go so over the top it would make Austen herself rise from the grave in complaint.
So does it measure up to that promise of madcap zombie fun, or does the gimmick burn out less than half-way through? The answer is neither – but that turns out to be to the book’s benefit. Rather than sacrifice a work of literature to Internet memes, “Zombies” actually spends more time with the original story than expected, reshaping the characters but never excising the plotlines. It’s not what most readers would expect going in, but in many ways it makes for a much better book, regardless of whether you favor Jane Austen or George Romero.
For the uninitiated, the original “Pride and Prejudice” is the story of Elizabeth Bennett, the most willful of a country gentleman’s five daughters. Continually badgered by her mother’s desire to marry her off and the flighty attitudes of her younger sisters, she finds a new target for her ire after the haughty Mr. Darcy dismisses her at a ball. As the two continue to interact, they find their terse reactions might be only a cover, masking an attraction that must overcome pride and social circumstances.
The new version keeps the original narrative, but adds a twist in that the countryside is crawling with the living dead. For the past five decades England has been besieged by hordes of the “unmentionables,” which rise from their graves in tattered suits and gowns to swarm manor houses and crack open the skulls of those within. Elizabeth and Darcy, along with several other characters, are now highly trained warriors who are capable of decapitating their enemies and feel no qualms about setting the bodies ablaze.
What is interesting about this undead invasion is that while they retain many of the more fearful aspects – passing zombie infection through bites, pitiful moaning and feasting on brains – it never becomes the overarching concern of the story. Most of the recent efforts in the genre have focused on the apocalyptic aspect, but the world of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” still considers social norms and inheritance the greatest of concerns, and Austen’s verbal sparring is supplemented by actual combat rather than replaced.
Keeping the language turns out to be the smartest decision the book could make, as mixing the free indirect speech of the original book with nightmarish threats makes it funnier than any gore-splattered zombie film. The precise verbal patterns see characters encountering the “sorry stricken,” weapons are drawn and they are “promptly dispatched to Hell,” and given “a proper Christian beheading.” A variety of incongruously humorous scenarios ensue, such as when two zombies slaughter an entire staff of servants in the kitchen and the party’s host can only observe “a delightful array of tarts, exotic fruits, and pies, sadly soiled by blood and brains, and thus unusable.
The subtleness of the zombie humor keeps the altered narrative going, but the book’s real strength is in the indirect changes the threat provides. Elizabeth and her sisters have been trained in the deadly arts by Master Liu of China, and are capable of walking on their hands, administering cuts of shame in times of failure and fight with “a razor-sharp dagger with one hand, the other tucked modestly into the small of her back.” They and other characters have grown up with the zombie threat, and as a consequence match breeding with battle skills.
With the characters tooled in this fashion, it enlivens the original’s conflicts considerably. Elizabeth sees Darcy’s slights not merely social but an insult to her warrior honor, and vows to take his head after their first meeting, and when he confesses his lover her first reaction is to kick his head into a fireplace mantel. Lady Catherine, the preeminent noble in the book, is respected as much for her elite guard of ninjas as her extreme wealth, and Darcy’s dispute with Mr. Wickham is less about money and more about severe beatings. The moves seem to make the characters more interesting, as they can act on their feelings rather than just talking.
In the end, the real victor of this parody appears to be Jane Austen herself, as her book has been reanimated in a way not even Keira Knightly could pull off. Fans of the original will be both taken aback and charmed by their beloved characters talking casually about ripping out an enemy’s heart, and those who haven’t read it before will be intrigued as to how the story could work without. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” has not only had a brilliant idea, but handled it in the most competent fashion.