• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Jane Austen on Film: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

ByFreddy Lowe

May 12, 2023

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any article about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice must begin with a naff riff on the ‘universally acknowledged’ line.

It is also much acknowledged (rightly so) that Pride and Prejudice is one of the best books ever written. The BBC’s 2003 Big Read poll named it the nation’s second-favourite book, beaten only by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is so widely loved that one day, Seth Grahame-Smith sat down and thought, “I know what we need – a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice with zombies!” Thus begins his bestselling classic Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

This quirky book makes for a fun enough read, though the novelty wears off by the end. Nevertheless, it was popular enough to spawn a film adaptation with a star-studded cast, ranging from Lily James (What’s Love Got to Do With It?), Matt Smith (Dr Who), Charles Dance (Game of Thrones, The Crown, And Then There Were None), Sally Philips (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Miranda) and Douglas Booth (And Then There Were None). Thus was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – the feature film – born.

This project reveals two bizarre things about our society. The first is that we are capable of producing such a thing called ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ with a straight face. The second – and, by far, the more bizarre – is that this film is brilliant!

Mr Darcy is now an army colonel employed to keep society safe from zombies: a vital profession despite making him ruthless and unpopular. The film opens with his visiting Netherfield Park to intervene in a potential zombie attack. Netherfield is abandoned following the attack…until it is let at last by Douglas Booth’s Mr Bingley! From here proceeds the conventional plot of Pride and Prejudice, but with the Bennet sisters fully trained as zombie warriors and the finale culminating in an epic battle between the living and the undead.

This lively, eccentric, and charmingly bonkers production – starring Lily James and Sam Riley as Lizzy and Darcy – more than deserves its place in the canon of Jane Austen film adaptations. James and Riley are more than a match for Kiera Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen from the popular 2005 adaptation. Despite the title making the film sound like a joke, the protagonists’ relationship becomes surprisingly moving. They give feisty, charismatic, and heartfelt performances, and there is a true payoff when they ultimately get together. 

One must recognise that this is a Jane Austen film about zombies – an in-depth analysis misses the point a bit – but despite that, the film is cleverer than one would suppose in transposing Austen’s source material.

For example, in Austen’s novel, Lizzy is presented as Darcy’s human equal despite her lower social status. This film makes this clear with the choice to make Lizzy a warrior, just like Darcy. If you can fight zombies and thus save the lives of your peers, the ludicrous things that humans discriminate against in Austen’s society – gender and class – are rendered utterly immaterial. Appropriately, Darcy first notices her when she fights a hoard of zombies at Netherfield, helping him realise she is more than meets the eye.

Lizzy’s choice to get married is further complicated by having to “relinquish her sword for a ring”. Getting married would mean that she could no longer be a warrior. Women are forced to make the ultimate choice: fierce battle prowess or a traditionally stable marriage?  Take this conversation between Lizzy and Charlotte as an example:

Elizabeth: I shall never relinquish my sword for a ring.

Charlotte: For the right man, you would.

Elizabeth: The right man wouldn’t ask me to.

This dialogue respects Austen’s memory because it feels like she could have written it, albeit without the silly context.

Equally, the sexual politics are intelligently handled. In Austen’s novel, Lizzie makes the mortifying realisation that the stories she had told herself about Darcy were utterly misguided. Meanwhile, Darcy learns to lose his pride and stop interfering in the lives of his friends. Their relationship is thus built on the equality of two very human individuals who help each other learn and grow.

In this film, this equality is transposed to a more concrete symmetry.  In the beginning (while they think they hate each other), Darcy saves Lizzy’s life from an undead, much to Lizzy’s chagrin. Then, at the end, Darcy is sent into battle, and she is prevailed upon to save him. The symbolic equality of Jane Austen’s protagonists is converted to a more literal equality, yet it is just as effective.

After she has saved his life comes my favourite moment: Lizzy crawls along to Darcy’s unconscious body (accompanied by Fernando Velasquez’s stunning score) and quotes Northanger Abbey: “the very first moment I beheld you, my heart was irrevocably gone.” It’s a sombre and moving moment, as well as a clear nod to Austen herself.

This film is certainly not a spoof in the vein of Shaun of the Dead.  While it does contain comedy and parody, it still takes itself seriously. This choice of seriousness for an Austen film about zombies may alienate some viewers. However, if you can accept the bizarre premise and allow yourself to be swept along with it, I suspect you will find a well-written, clever, and satisfying production with unexpected emotional weight.

Image “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by WyldKyss is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival