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Done with the Zombies

At long last, I finished Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It took great strength of will and self-discipline to finish, so I suppose that zombie killer, “bride of death” Elizabeth Bennett would be proud.

Honestly, I can’t understand what all the fuss is about. And it’s not because I’m an “Austen Purist,” a being evidently more frightful than zombies. I like Austen well enough and I would have been delighted, nay, thrilled!, if PPZ had been fun and clever. The title is a hoot and promises great fun. And zombies even seem appropriate to the book. Seth Grahame-Smith, the “author,” admits that about 85% of the book is Austen’s original language. He just added the zombie bit and, in fact, claims that zombies are such a perfect fit for Austin’s England that he had no trouble integrating the material at all.

The glowing reviews baffle me. Most bloggers seem to respond by saying “Why not?! Why not?!” as if daring those dreadful Austen Purists to attack. Other critics suggest that the warrior version of the Bennett sisters is even better than the original because who doesn’t love “feisty” heorines? But the book hardly seems to be a product of “grrl power.”

NPR’s Madhulika Sikka writes “And let’s face it — who wouldn’t want to read a version of Austen’s most beloved book that includes ‘ultraviolet zombie mayhem,’ where we discover that the lovely Miss Elizabeth Bennett isn’t only a woman of discerning taste, steadfast values and integrity, she can also take on three zombies at once” (“The Mayhem of ‘Pride, Prejudice And Zombies’”). Sikka goes on to suggest that any “rip off” of Austen is good because it might cause someone to discover the source texts. The New York Times reports that Grahame-Smith’s goal was “mostly to sell resistant readers on the joys of Jane while having a bit of fun.”
I find these types of responses annoying because they imply that Austen needed Grahame-Smith’s intervention to make her novel interesting and compelling. They suggest that the “masterpiece” isn’t really a masterpiece or that in the very least, that only dusty old traditionalists cling to the idea that Austen’s work is amazing and that today’s “young and hip” need something like zombies to relate to. Such reviews tend to use words like “staid,” “over-done,” “done to death,” “bored to tears,” and “slog” when describing Austen’s work. Zombies are supposed to make that better? If one already thinks that way about, say, Pride and Prejudice, how are zombies going to help?

Emily Karrs’s take on the whole thing is probably closest to mine. Karrs, from National Review Online, writes “since the announcement of its title, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has generated an online buzz comparable only, perhaps, to that surrounding the movie Snakes on a Plane“ (“Dawn of the Zom Rom Com”). Snakes on a Plane, was the Samuel L. Jackson movie that was not only campy and bad but took a narissistic pride in being so. The problem was that instead of being campy and bad in a good way, it was just a poor excuse for a B-Movie shlockfest.

The same applies to PPZ. My annoyance with the book is not that someone put zombies in Austen but that they could have done so much more with the idea. Instead, it works as gimmick and gimmick only. Why couldn’t the zombies serve as an occasion to think about class and breeding? Or commentary on marriage? Or the life-in-death quality of proper English society? Or the question of what makes a woman marriagible? The question of marrigablity does come up but it’s so clear in the story that Elizabeth and her warrior sister are admired MUCH more than the non-warrior women that the possibility that the Bennett sisters aren’t well bread because of their training rings false. Mr. Darcy tells the warrior Elizabeth that her sisters’s exhibit poor breeding because they flirt with soldiers and don’t devote themselves to their warrior training. And, in fact, the dishonor associated with muddy petticoats is the same in PPZ as it is in Austen’s original. So much for the opportunity to view social commentary in a new way. It seems sad that a conceit with such fun potential should be insubstantial. Karr hits the nail on the head when she writes “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes across as a particularly clever teenager’s joke, made to while away the time of an honors English student in study hall. ‘I say, you know what would be awesome? If Mr. Darcy was like, a ninja. A ninja who fights zombies!’ This sophomoric flair is especially pronounced in the profusion of eye-roll-inducing puns regarding the ‘balls’ so frequently attended by characters in the novel.”

Really, the only thing that kept me reading was to find out what would happen to Elizabeth’s poor friend Charlotte Lucas. After getting Mr. Collins to propose to her, Charlotte confides to Elizabeth that she has actually been infected with the zombie plague. Her unavoidable fate is in part what pushes her towards Mr. Collins because she wants to be assured that she will have a good Christian husband who will behead her when the time is right. Her problem is not just that she’s almost an old maid but that she’s almost a zombie as well. As Elizabeth watches her friend slowly decay and transform, and wonders if her training doesn’t demand that she kill Charlotte herself, she is baffled by the fact that no one else seems to notice. It is not surprising at all that the dull-witted Mr. Collins doesn’t notice his new bride’s festering sores, grey skin and strange occupation with brains. The scenes with Charlotte are peppered with jokes about how no one can understand her growls and grunts or that her table mates must very kindly remind her to use silverware. The considerable difficulties that accompany a slow transformation into a zombie are all explained away as nervousness or even as the signs of a successful hostess because either no one notices or no one can bear to mention the unmentionable.

It is in these scenes in which the potential for the zombie plague to be more than just gimmick is most nearly realized for it is here where the Bennett sisters aren’t just bad-ass warriors but that the zombies serve as metaphor for the social issues that Austen’s original concerns itself with. Grahame-Smith doesn’t add anything to make the novel more current. Rather, he misses the opportunity to do so. Classic zombie movies already have strong threads of social commentary woven through them, which is what makes the idea of combining zombies with a book of manners so compelling. PPZ just doesn’t rise to the occasion.

The rights to the movie have already been optioned, of course. Natalie Portman is “attached” to the project. Ballantine Books is annoyed because Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has scooped Michael Thomas Ford’s Jane Bites Back. Filming for Pride and Predator begins in London later this year. Maybe that one will work better.