Pride and Prejudice is one of the most beloved and acclaimed romance novels of all time. It has been adapted many times to film and television, most famously in a 90s miniseries and in the mid-2000s for the big screen. As the novel is in the public domain, in 2009 it was mashed together with modern zombie fiction and turned into Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and led to a few classic fictional mash-ups, such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. A film adaptation of the novel has been talked about and in various stages of development for quite some time, and has finally reached the big screen in 2016. Sadly, it is not the film I had hoped it would be.
The story of Pride and Prejudice is still mostly intact, telling the story of the road to love between Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James) and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) and all the cast of characters that surround them: Jane (Bella Heathcote), Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Mr. Collins (Matt Smith), Mr .& Mrs. Bennett (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips), and Lady Catherine (Lena Headey). In this alternate reality of 19th century England, the Bennetts live in a world where zombies roam the countryside and surround London in an area known as The In-Between. Mr. Darcy is a Colonel traveling the country to deal with reports of the infected in various areas. Elizabeth and her sisters are ninja warriors, having been trained to defend themselves from the undead hordes in the Far East in China (rather than the popular choice, Japan), at the direction of their father. They are proficient in weaponry and fighting, and it is this, along with her intellect that draws Mr. Darcy to her as they fight to repel the zombie scourge, with an “End of Days” threat looming.
It is impossible to have read the novel and resist judging the film by it. The film had a fairly bumpy road toward adaptation, and, sadly, it is felt in the film. At various times, Natalie Portman, David O. Russell, Mike Newell, Matt Reeves, Mike White, and Craig Gillespie were all attached or rumored to be approached about the film (Portman stayed on as a producer). The screenplay went through several iterations, beginning with Russell and ending with Burr Steers, who would also end up directing it.
Being a completely satisfying zombie movie is a difficult task when saddled with a PG-13 rating. There is a limit to the blood and gore that can be depicted on screen. Still, there are some moments of enjoyable zombie fighting action. Unfortunately, they are too far and far between. They also make the odd choice of making their own unique brand of zombies that talk and act like normal living people and in some cases disguise and hide their zombification process, which doesn’t really work and just makes for a compromised and tamer version of zombies.
What is the biggest undoing this film though is that they have made it into a “comedy” action horror movie with romantic elements instead of keeping it as a romantic horror comedy with action elements. Jane Austen’s novel is a comedy and excellent source material that lends itself surprisingly well to the zombie elements, including having a militia camped nearby. The mash-up is what makes the 2009 novel so unique, and turning it into just another zombie flick greatly diminishes that. Most of the Austen beats are still in there, but they take a backseat to the action and the zombies and the tacked on “End of Days” apocalypse that wasn’t even in Grahame-Smith’s parody. If they had kept it as a mostly straightforward retelling of Pride and Prejudice and sprinkled in the zombies and the martial arts like the novel had, it could have been much more interesting.
It’s unfortunate, because Lily James and most of the cast all have moments where they are entertaining with the material they are given, and James in particular is someone who I think has a very bright future, given her performance last year in Cinderella. Matt Smith also gives an entertaining Mr. Collins. But too much of this film is generic action and explosions and fight scenes that overpower the foundational text. It’s like a song where one instrument ends up drowning out most of the others, so you are unable to appreciate the harmony at work. This is a film that could have been wildly entertaining as a period comedy of manners with zombies thrown in. It should have been more like a comedy like Warm Bodies. Instead, it’s just warmed over and a waste of two good source materials.
Rating 2 out of 5 stars