So... we all remember the brief fad of historical "mashup" novels from seven or so years back, yes? I never read any of them, and I was less than blown away by the film adaptation of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. Still, I confess more than a little amusement at the concept of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. Let's be fair--Quirk Books came up with it first, and Seth Grahame-Smith is completely and non-begrudgingly entitled to his fifteen minutes of fame. Welcome to the public domain, Jane Austen!
Okay. You know me and you know my bent. I grew up with plenty of classic literature at my disposal, but my tastes never led me to check out Jane Austen. I never read LITTLE WOMEN, either, but I'm sure it's a fine book. Nothing personal against any of the above. So, for my fellow non-initiates? PRIDE AND PREJUDICE gives us the seemingly prim and proper Bennett family in 19th century England. The once thriving estate is now haunted by the spectre of financial ruin, so the parents are understandably interested in marrying their slew of daughters (no sons) off to a succession of wealthy suitors--and this leads to a comedy/drama of manners, snobbery and female empowerment.
The 2009 mashup adds the zombie apocalypse to the formula, but I won't use the phrase "plain and simple." The traditional elements are sufficiently tweaked to seem quite at home in the world of Jane Austen. Here, the dead can be taken out by a headshot a la Romero, but crave brains in the tradition established by Dan O'Bannon. And most importantly of all, the recently infected can infiltrate polite society and carry on as normal for as long as they can hold off of consuming human brains. Therefore, all aristocratic offspring (male and female alike) are required to be trained in the martial arts--and to enhance Austen's theme of social snobbery, those who train in the (comparatively inexpensive) Shaolin temples of China are considered 'declasse' by those wealthy enough to train in honorable Japan!
Which brings me to why I decided to check the movie out in the first place, despite never having read either version of the book. The long-delayed movie, adapted and directed by Burr Steers (no, I never saw his Zac Efron movies either), had "flop" written all over it. I correctly figured that the zombie fans wouldn't want to put up with the Jane Austen and that the Austen fans would scarcely deign to endure the zombie material. Well, gee, here's the major theme of the movie right in front of me, and the movie was offering me something that I hadn't already seen in the zombie-infested 21st century. How could I NOT at least give it a try?
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a true classic because the funny guys were allowed to be funny while the Universal Monsters were allowed to play it straight (was Lon Chaney, Jr. any less sincere as Larry Talbot than he was in the original WOLF MAN, for instance?). Here, Jane Austen is allowed to be Jane Austen with zero contempt or spoofery for any of her characters. I have no doubt whatsoever that Lily James would thrive as the fiercely independent Elizabeth Bennett in a completely straight Austen adaptation (hey, it's been at least ten years since Kiera Knightley had the part, right?); and Sam Riley scores as an equally dashing and brooding (Colonel) Darcy. I can well imagine how the disastrous marriage proposal between the two would go in the non-zombie version, but here we're treated to their equally-matched fighting skills in one of the best scenes. It's always great to see Charles Dance (who just enhanced the regretfully-neglected VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN); here playing the patriarch equally concerned with family and society; and Matt Smith scores hugely as the insufferable Parson Collins. I could go on, but this should suffice--the straight material is played straight and played very well. As for the zombie material? It won't sate the appetites of those expecting THE WALKING DEAD, but you've already GOT TWD, right? Here, you're given some decently suspenseful sequences, at least one terrific jump and some fine transition into the classical material (I loved it when Elizabeth used her Shaolin skills to prevent Darcy's telltale carrion flies from landing on a potential target, for example).
All things considered, I awaited the moment when my interest in this story would flag before the fadeout. But truth be told, that moment never arrived. I'm convinced that the dismal box-office of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES had far less to do with people seeing the film and hating it and far more to do with potential audience members (of both "classes") declining to give it a chance in the first place. I say... give this original and entertaining mashup a fair audition. It just might surprise you.
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