The brilliance of Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel is right there in the title – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s simple yet insanely clever. Perhaps the industry is oversaturated with zombie outbreaks at the moment, but there’s a reason for that. They’re outrageous and addictive thrills that I, for one, can’t get enough of, especially when there’s a smart hook to the scenario like this. The idea to simply add zombies to the Jane Austen classic is a winning concept and Grahame-Smith finds some very smart ways to use the outbreak to shed new light on the original narrative, but director Burr Steers couldn’t seem to find the sweet spot between the original and the reimagining to make the big screen rendition work as well as it could have.
Just like the classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is set in 19th century England and focuses on Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James). Her mother is determined to find Liz and her four sisters wealthy, eligible suitors, but Liz is an independent, headstrong woman with little to no interest in submitting to societal norms or marrying because it’s what’s expected of her. As if that’s not stressful enough, Grahame-Smith opted to throw another challenge at this English literature icon – a zombie outbreak. So now, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Bennet sisters aren’t just trying to find their place in a world that’s obsessed with reputation and class, but also one that’s overrun with the undead as well.
First off, Steers and his team deserve some serious credit for jumping feet first into a project that was going to be nearly impossible to pull off. Whether you’re a hardcore Jane Austen fan, a moviegoer with a taste for the undead or perhaps someone who appreciates both, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies still needed to hit a very particular balance between the two to ensure that viewers would appreciate both Elizabeth’s romantic pursuits and her dedication to being a skilled warrior. It is abundantly clear that Steers and his team knew that and went for it, but even with the best intentions, many of their attempts to combine the traditional Pride and Prejudice narrative with a zombie outbreak just didn’t work.
The most glaring problem with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that the villains’ intentions make little to no sense. The book never explains why the outbreak begins or how the disease is progressing, but the movie attempts to do so and while that does lend itself to a stunning opening credit sequence, it also winds up taking a good deal of time away from some much-needed character development and leaves the film ridden with plot holes, too.
When you cast a guy like Jack Huston as Mr. Wickham, you’d expect the screenwriters to give the role a boost, but this particular book-to-screen change is overly complicated and isn’t nearly as memorable as where the character winds up in the book. Perhaps more screen time for Lydia Bennet (Ellie Bamber) and for Wickham and Darcy’s (Sam Riley) history could have helped, but it still seems as though all the character development in the world couldn’t have filled the gaping holes in this portion of the movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the movie also adds The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Why? Perhaps there was more to their involvement that wound up on the cutting room floor, but in the final version of the film, their presence adds nothing to the story beyond a few haunting visuals.
PPZ is also a bit of a technical disappointment. The film barely scratches the surface of the idea that, in this zombie outbreak, the infected can retain some of their human personality, but the zombie design is on-point and does what it can to highlight that concept while also throwing in some traditional gore. Trouble is, strong special effects make-up, production design and costume design isn’t going to do much for a movie that is so poorly lit. There are a number of noticeably dark scenes and a handful of others that are shot in a way that makes it nearly impossible to track the action and fight choreography. At one point, we also get something that looks like a tacky Instagram vignette that doesn’t enhance the moment and is so glaringly obvious that it winds up taking you out of the movie.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could have made for a far better big screen adaptation, but what Steers winds up with is entertaining enough. Yes, the aforementioned flaws are major problems, but both Pride and Prejudice and the zombie outbreak scenarios have an inherent appeal that makes the film a good deal of fun regardless. Plus, James and Riley elevate the material immensely. James absolutely nails this rendition of Elizabeth Bennet. Her version of the character reflects the same blend of stubbornness and passion we’ve seen in previous versions of Pride and Prejudice, but she’s also got a naturally captivating on-screen presence that makes the character her own. Riley has a unique charm as well, and successfully takes Darcy from an “insufferable prick” to someone you can grow to like, perfectly mirroring his on-screen relationship with Liz.
This is definitely their movie, but Matt Smith comes dangerously close to stealing the spotlight with minimal screen time as Parson Collins. He lights up every scene he’s in with some much needed energy and levity. The movie could have used much more of that and more of Lena Headey’s eye patch-wearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh as well. Steers’ dedication to the Jane Austen original serves the film well here and there, but the standout moments are the ones when characters embrace and have some fun with the absurdity of their situation.
So no, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies definitely isn’t as smart and sassy as I hoped, but there is an unstoppable entertainment value to the concept and some of the performances that make it fun and enjoyable enough.