Fandom Mashup Is Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts
DIRECTOR: BURR STEERS/2016
I came of age before Jane Austen fandom was a thing. Yes, yes, I know that Jane died almost 200 years ago, and her novels have always had their adherents. But I can tell you that something has changed between my years as a Jane-Austen-loving English major nerd in the mid-80s, and the present. Back then I felt mostly alone in being obsessed with the Bennett sisters or the well meaning but intrusive Emma Woodhouse. These days…well, there’s Austen fan fiction, guided tours of historic sites, conventions, a popular Austen-inspired board game (Marrying Mr. Darcy), and even a movie about Jane Austen fandom (Austenland). The Jane Austen Society of North America has 4,500 members (or Janeites, as the fans are called) and 65 chapters. Be jealous, Charles Dickens. Blame Colin Firth.
Zombies were only slightly more prominent in my youth, reaching adulthood when George Romero was still carrying the zombie mantle alone, at least in the mainstream consciousness. But now…well, who doesn’t know about zombie walks, zombie games (video and table top games), movie franchises, graphic novels and the wildly popular TV series, The Walking Dead? You can even decorate your yard with zombie garden gnomes.
So what’s better than two fandoms? A fandom mashup! Out of just such logic was conceived “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, the 2009 novel “co-authored” by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.
I didn’t read it, in part because I was a P & P purist, and I didn’t appreciate anyone trespassing on what was, for me, almost sacred ground. But I’ve loosened up in the last several years – and also, I’ve become a bit caught up in the zombie craze – and decided that the movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies deserved a fair shake.
And constant reader, the movie won me over with its first bullet to the head. I’m not kidding. It took me a few minutes to immerse myself in this surreal world, but once I decided to embrace it I found myself enjoying the beautifully costumed, mildly violent, Regency period silliness.
Having not read the novel, I was surprised at how much of Austen’s original plot and dialogue was included in this alternate universe. The five Bennett sisters are still under pressure to find husbands, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy still seem determined to think the worst of each other, Mr. Wickham is still deceptively charming…it’s not just there, it’s largely intact. In other words, the comedy of manners, the romance, the social commentary – it’s survived the zombie apocalypse.
If that all sounds absurd, it is. This is no Walking Dead. The characters don’t seem particularly traumatized by their country balls being interrupted by ravenous hordes of the undead.
It’s an inconvenience, sure, that the Bennett sisters – warriors all – have to stop dancing and get to slaying. But these are simply temporary setbacks to their social advancement. So, no, this is not an especially realistic zombie film, as such things go. And it’s not a horror film. It’s a comedy with some action, and much of the comedy is original to Austen. Her sharp, incisive dialogue still works, even between skull stompings. Go, Jane!
As for the cast, Lily James and Sam Riley make passable, but not spectacular central characters (Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy). Better are Charles Dance and Sally Phillips as the elder Bennetts (Phillips, in particular, is a delight). But no one holds a candle to Matt Smith’s Mr. Collins, the simpering, vain, wife-seeking clergyman. Smith is very, very funny as the butt of many of the film’s jokes.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies won me over with that first head shot, but alas, it did not keep me. In its second half, as the post-apocalyptic even-worse-apocalypse scenario unfolds, the movie loses steam. It becomes less funny, and consequently it’s not being scary suddenly matters. It also feels long, despite being well under two hours. And while the absurdity works when it’s obviously intended to be absurd, there’s a scene late in the movie which…I think was supposed to elicit real horror, and it just felt clumsy and false. Stupid, but not in a good way.
On the whole, as a Jane Austen fan, I was able to enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because at its core I could still see the characters I love, delivering many of those witty zingers that Austen wrote. And there was a little zombie fun mixed in. If I wasn’t already an Austen fan, though, and I really hoped for a zombie film – or a zom/com like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland – I’d be disappointed, underwhelmed, and by the end of the film, bored. Between the two fandoms, the movie tips in favor of the Austen crowd, but it left me with a hunger for something brainier – the unsurpassed BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from 1995. I’ll take Colin Firth any day.