Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has had a long and difficult road to the big screen. Announced way back in 2009 (two months before the book it is based on even came out), it has seen it’s fair share of directors ranging from the likes of David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) to Mike White (HBO’s Enlightened) to Craig Gillispie (Lars and the Real Girl, the Fright Night remake). Natalie Portman was even set to star at one point. Now, we have this current incarnation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, 17 Again) and starring Lily James (Disney’s recent live-action adaptation of Cinderella). Was it worth the wait? Mostly, yes.
During a visually impressive pop-up book opening credits sequence, we learn that in 19th century England, a mysterious plague has turned many of the citizens into zombies. Those who are left alive are trained in martial arts (Japanese for the wealthy, Chinese for the poor) and must deal with the deadly threat while also attempting to find true love. At the center of it all is Elizabeth (James), one of five Bennett sisters who cares more about survival than finding a husband. When Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) takes an immediate liking to the eldest Bennet sister Jane, Elizabeth must contend with the standoffish Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) whom she clashes with immediately over his arrogant pride and social prejudices (get it?) while fending off hordes of the undead.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a novel that has been adapted countless times over. Besides film adaptations in 1940, 1958, 1995 and 2005, it has seen modern reinterpretations in the form of Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2001 and the Bollywood-style Bride and Prejudice from 2004. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a fun diversion but nothing more. In that novel, Grahame-Smith kept most of Austen’s prose in tact but replaced certain words with zombie-related terms. It was a gimmick that began as entertaining but quickly grew tiresome once you realized that many of the best parts of the novel were actually Austen’s words rather than Grahame-Smith’s.
The film benefits from the medium, working much better as a two hour movie than a 300-page novel. The zombie aspect still feels like a gimmick, but the translation to the screen is more smooth than it was in the novel. The problem still remains that many of the parts that work best in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are adapted from Austen’s original novel instead of Grahame-Smith’s, but it’s not as bothersome while watching a film. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies may very well be one of the few examples of a film that improves upon the novel it is based on.
Performances are solid across the board. James kicks ass as Elizabeth and imbues her with just the right amount of strength and vulnerability. Darcy has never been a favorite character of mine (not a popular sentiment as I understand, but it is what it is), but Riley plays the character much as he is expected to. Game of Thrones actors Lena Headey and Charles Dance are solid in their brief roles, but it is Matt Smith (Doctor Who) who steals the show, bringing laughs with every single one of his lines and mannerisms. The character of Mr. Collins is the primary comic relief in the film, and casting Smith has paid off in spades. If the movie seems to lull at points, it snaps back to life the second Smith walks back on screen.
The action scenes are also exceptional. Despite some choppy editing (more on that in a bit), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has some expertly choreographed fight scenes. One particular scuffle between Elizabeth and Darcy immediately comes to mind, but the film is peppered with entertaining battles.
It doesn’t hurt matters that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is actually hilarious. Some jokes fall flat, but overall the comedy aspects of the film (and make no mistake, this film is a comedy) work extremely well. It is funny without being silly, which many viewers will find refreshing.
Unfortunately, the film falls apart in its third act. This is all the more baffling considering it is the part of the adaptation to stray the most from both source materials (Austen’s original novel and Grahame-Smith’s novel). The changes in the plot involve an obvious attempt at a twist and a climactic battle in which the stakes never seem that high. For the most part, the film is adept at poking fun at its ridiculous premise, so it is surprising to see the final act embrace its cheesiness and play it all so seriously. It is an abrupt change in tone that doesn’t serve the story well at all.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies plays fast and loose, helping it’s nearly two-hour run time fly by, but this means that the emotional moments where a beat or two would have been welcome are glossed over. The aforementioned final act is rushed as well. It is respectable that the film attempts to surprise by creating a new conflict and denouement never seen before in any previous versions of the story, but the stakes just don’t ever seem that high, making it difficult to care with what is happening on screen.
A PG-13 rating also holds the film back. A horror film’s quality should never be judged by the amount of gore present on screen, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is no different, but the editing used to limit the gore is so choppy during the zombie attack scenes that is becomes difficult to tell what is going on. There are moments of inspiration when it comes to zombie-killing, like a kill from the zombie’s point of view in the prologue, but overall it is far too tame and is an example of lazy filmmaking (or too much studio involvement. You decide.). After the critical and commercial flop that was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (another adaptation of a Seth Grahame-Smith novel), it’s not surprising to see why Sony opted to go the more box office-friendly PG-13 route.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is far from a perfect film, and fans of Austen’s novel will probably find more to gripe about than admire, but the fact is that this is a much better adaptation than anyone could have anticipated. This is especially true for a horror comedy being released in February, which is traditionally a dumping ground for lesser-quality studio horror films. If you can turn your brain off and enjoy the ride, you will find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to be the most entertaining film of the season!