In 1813, renowned author Jane Austen published a book called Pride and Prejudice, which told the story of the Bennet girls; five daughters whose mother desperately tries to marry them off to wealthy suitors, so they are not left penniless when they grow older. The second daughter, Elizabeth Bennet, is much more opposed to giving herself away to a man in the name of financial security, much to her mother’s dismay. However, when a special gentleman named Mr. Darcy comes along, a spark catches flame between the two, igniting a reluctant romance, which starts with hatred, but bends and twists over time into true love. In 2009, novelist Seth Grahame-Smith wrote his own version of the beloved tale, titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is pretty much exactly as it sounds — a comical take on the iconic account, which simply swaps out the Napoleonic Wars in place of a zombie apocalypse, and turns the Bennet daughters into trained fighters.
One of the most fascinating aspects about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the upcoming mashup of Jane Austen’s regency literature and the fantastical notion of the dead walking the earth, is the radical idea of making the women the weapon-wielding heroes, and the men the damsels in distress, as they stand by and wait patiently for one of these heroines to accept their marriage proposal.
“There’s just something about playing a strong, independent female character,” reflects star Bella Heathcote (Jane Bennet) excitedly with a smile on her face, “and also being physically strong and tough, and getting to rescue the boys, and not being the damsel for once that was just excellent”. Bestselling author of the 2009 novel, Seth Grahame-Smith, has received much praise for his bold depiction of the Bennet girls (in particular, Elizabeth Bennet), yet he remains humble about his interpretation of Austen’s work. Smith wants to make it clear that he is not the one due for praise for this feminist angle. “People try to say, ‘Oh, you wrote this great female heroine’ – no I didn’t. I just put a sword in her hand, and made her say all the same things”. Smith made a point to add on, “It wasn’t that I was trying to instill any feminism that wasn’t already in [Jane Austen’s] book. I mean, the book is probably the original feminist novel, isn’t it? Because Lizzie is unlike any of her contemporaries”.
Little did Smith realize how inspirational assigning a blade and sheath to Elizabeth Bennet’s side would become for women (and men) across the globe, or how it would make Austen’s 1813 classic feel extremely relevant in modern times again. Without the crucial addition of lethal weapons — and course, zombies — it’s hard to say if this 2016 adaptation of centuries old literature about the Bennet sisters being married off would have had as great of an impact on today’s audiences as it already has. The anticipation building around this film certainly wouldn’t be as intense without notable stars Lily James (Elizabeth Bennet) and Matt Smith (Mr. Collins), who grew intrigued about the project thanks to the quirky spin on the traditional novel.
“I think Liz Bennet is already just the coolest, most independent, wonderful character, and then give her a sword and she just gets even better” Lily James swoons. “Pride and Prejudice has been done and done so well, that it just felt fun to add zombies”.
Matt Smith, too, chimed in on his enjoyment of the new twist on the material: “I think that’s one of the virtues of the film, actually, that the girls are the kickass sexy heroines, you know? They did all the fighting and I think there’s something in that”.
Of course, gender swapping isn’t the only trait that lured Smith to the film. To the old Doctor, adding the undead to the mix was an insightful way to create an adaptation that hadn’t quite been done before. “It’s nice that there’s zombies in it, because it refreshes the periodness of the drama, and it allows the tone to be something else and something other, and I think subsequently, as an actor, it allows you to make bold choices, because, you know, when the Bennet sisters are talking about getting a husband, they’re not just talking about getting a husband as they would normally, they’re talking about getting a husband under the circumstance of a zombie apocalypse, which somehow makes talking about a husband more interesting”.
If by “bold choices”, Matt Smith meant stealing nearly every scene he’s in, then it truly is a blessing that he’s allowed a little more freedom through this unusual take on traditional Austen. His hilarious quips about his character Collins fancying a scone or a muffin, delivered with the enthusiasm of a small child, are often so entertaining that it’s difficult to notice anyone else in the room. “I went back to the book” Smith explains, “and when I read the original novel, I found out that he was really interested in eating, and muffins, and scones and things like that, and so I thought, maybe try and get some of that texture into the piece”.
Smith isn’t the only one who noticed the underlying chuckles in Austen’s original text. Bella Heathcote agrees that when reading between the lines of romance and drama, there’s laughter to be found. “The original novel, I find it to be quite funny” Heathcote points out. “I think the funny is in the absurdity of it, it’s not like, this is a funny performance I’m giving, and I think if you take it seriously, it’s easier to laugh at you”. Her co-star Lily James quickly added, “We’re not playing it for laughs, it’s not too campy, it’s about the humor coming out of the situations”. Even author Smith placed an emphasis on the comical aspect of the film, when he said pointedly, “Humor, to me, is the unifying principle”.
Although there was plenty of room for giggles and tongue-in-cheek jabs at some of the off the wall dialogue and dated setups (such as the idea that cousins are fit to marry one another and it’s deemed perfectly normal), everyone on board knew the score. “The big wink is there is no big wink” says writer/director Burr Steers matter-of-factly, “So you have to be able to do it seriously”. This method of execution was of particular importance to PPZ novelist Seth Grahame-Smith. “The thing that I’m most thrilled about is just the tone” Grahame-Smith reports energetically. “It’s not just about the lines of dialogue, and everything, but the fact that they approached it with this unflinching seriousness, like the fact that they never really wink, that people are speaking correctly, that they are acting properly, that this isn’t like a, you know, spoof movie. We’re not doing like The Starving Games or Scary Movie. I mean, those movies, they’re sketches, they have to wear their humor on their sleeve. Whereas, this one, it’s Pride and Prejudice….that just happens to have zombies in it”.
Grahame-Smith might have been such a big admirer of Austen’s work that he set about writing a parody novel that evolved into this gigantic onscreen phenomenon, but he’s not the only member of the cast who carries an affection for the romantically-driven writer. Star Douglas Booth, who plays Mr. Bingley, had this to say about the original spark he felt for Jane’s work: “You know, you always say, ‘Oh, I’d love to time travel’, but I think you can. Do you know what I mean? The books are there, you can go straight into someone’s mind who was existing then, and just exist in their problems. I mean, she was writing about the problems she faced in the society around her, and to me, it’s like going back in time, it’s like time travel. That’s why I personally love reading those kind of classics”.
Mr. Booth is such a fan of the classics, in fact, that he has agreed to sign on to a sort of upcoming adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, instead of focusing on the fiction, this story will be told via the writers’ room, from the writers themselves. “I’m playing Percy Shelley” Booth says with a grin, “In a movie about the love affair between Shelley and Mary Shelley that results in the writing of Frankenstein. So, Elle Fanning is playing Mary Shelley”. What an innovative idea, especially after so many attempts to delve into the actual text! It will be thrilling to see how this interpretation of history itself plays out. Until then, this reporter will be glad to sit back and enjoy the laughs, the tears, and the unrequited romance blossoming between the stubborn Mr. Darcy, and the unattainable Elizabeth Bennet, which is sure to be made all the more amusing by the hordes of zombies the two must fight off before they can even consider joining hands in holy matrimony.
As for the possibility of a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, no official plans have been made as of yet, but it seems as though pretty much everyone (at least, everyone who survives past the first film) is on board, if it were to happen. “I would definitely have a cameo if it launched a franchise” declares author Seth Grahame-Smith with glee. “In the very least, I’d like to be a part of coming up with what happens next, and I don’t know if that would mean writing another book”. Lily James agrees that she, too, would like to join in on a second production: “There isn’t any signed-on about it, there’s no contract, we didn’t sign up to more, but I think there’s always been an open discussion about it, and I think we genuinely all would love to do another one”.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hits theaters everywhere on February 5th, 2016.