Where would "Jane Austen, but with zombies" fall on the reboot/remake/reimagining scale that currently rules Hollywood with an iron fist? The last category, I suppose, though Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, opening Friday, also counts in that other Hollywood-favorite category: book adaptation.
It's based on a version of Jane Austen's classic novel, zombified in 2009 by Seth Grahame-Smith. Grahame-Smith is also responsible for 2010's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which was turned into a (rather dismally reviewed) action movie; thankfully, in the hands of screenwriter/director Burr Steers, P&P&Z sidesteps the serious treatment in favor of plenty of winking camp.
The film stars Lily James as Elizabeth Bennet, who along with her four sisters — Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Mary (Millie Brady), and Lydia (Ellie Bamber) — have been raised by their father (Charles Dance) to battle the zombies infesting the English countryside, while also trying to attract eligible bachelors and fending off the humiliations of their overbearing mother (Sally Phillips). When the rich, single Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) comes to town, accompanied by his haughty, monster-killing friend Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), Elizabeth and Jane find themselves struggling with matters of love, while also fighting to stay alive.
Horrified by this perversion of a classic? This movie is not for you! But if you're okay with a little chocolate in your peanut butter (or vice versa), here's what works, and what doesn't, about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Good: There are some terrifically fun moments
Austen had a knack for sharp dialogue, and part of what makes Pride and Prejudice's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, so enduringly charming is her mastery of witty wordplay. P&P&Z takes that one step further; Liz (as she's called here, rather than Lizzie) is equally adept — but with swordplay.
It sounds a bit ridiculous (and it is), but there's something so elementally satisfying about watching Liz, after being insulted to her face by yet another undeserving man, deliver the ass-kicking he so richly deserves. James as Liz is fun, whether she's espousing (in Chinese) the value of reading The Art of War in its original language or taking on a hulking henchman twice her size à la Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible.
Similarly, Game of Thrones' Lena Headey is a snarling delight as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, here reimagined as a famous zombie killer who sports an eyepatch ("Fashion or function?" Mrs. Bennet queries at one point). Pity we don't get to see more of her onscreen.
P&P&Z likely won't appeal to hardcore zombie fans — its PG-13 rating will attest to its gentler level of gore, mostly played for laughs — but anyone who loves Austen's original novel will find something to enjoy here.
Bad: The talented cast is a bit underused
The movie has a lot of story to pack into its short, sub-two-hour running time — and with all that zombie fightin', the plot (and by extension, the characters) suffers a bit. Any viewer who's unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice will be pretty confused as to who everyone is; while Liz, Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), Darcy, and to a slightly lesser extent Jane and Bingley, get plenty of screen time, Mary, Mr. Bennet, and even Lydia are the barest of outlines, and poor Suki Waterhouse as Kitty gets nary a line of her own.
Doctor Who's Matt Smith has a hefty part as the mansplaining Mr. Collins — pardon me, Parson Collins — and utterly steals the show. He delivers the lion's share of comic relief with a sardonic wit that's a bit at odds with his character's sycophantic personality, but he's so funny it's hard to really care.
Still, keeping the focus so tightly on Liz and Darcy results in some odd pacing; some of Austen's arguably less essential scenes are reproduced nearly in full, while a few entire subplots are dispatched with a line or two. The fact that P&P&Z is based on such a well-known novel makes this misstep less egregious than it could otherwise be, but it still feels overstuffed in some places and underbaked in others.
Good: The story isn't afraid to strike out on its own
P&P&Z smartly tweaks its storyline in ways that depart from both Grahame-Smith's work and Austen's original novel. Some of that is due, no doubt, to the constraints of the movie's running time, but the benefit is that the changes yield some great feminist-action-movie moments that are sorely needed in Hollywood's current climate.
In this zombie-infested universe, fighting skills are highly prized among both men and women (and Japanese training is valued above Chinese, for some reason). Still, the Bennet sisters, despite their "inferior" Chinese training, get to take down a party full of zombies and save a bunch of men who make goo-goo eyes at them from being eaten by the undead. And Liz and Lady Catherine are respected allies rather than enemies, as I always wished could have been the case in Austen's original work. Historical accuracy be damned — letting the women be the literal lifesavers is a wonderful modern take on this story, which makes a lot of this movie's silliness more tolerable.
But for those who love the original, never fear: Most of the usual story beats are still there, and P&P&Z even manages to throw in an homage to the best adaptation of Pride and Prejudice ever, which I won't spoil here but, again, is vastly improved by familiarity.
Bad: All the same, the story really doesn't make much sense
When it comes down to it, it's best not to think too hard about the rules of this world; otherwise many, many questions arise. For instance: If warrior skills are so valued and a nobleman will send his daughters to China to study martial arts, why is marrying a rich man still so important? Why are only some women trained in combat but not others? If Jane is so highly skilled in fighting, how does she let her musket backfire — and why does a simple cold still leave her bedridden? Why does only Darcy know how to test for zombification? Why do the Bennet sisters still have to wear corsets??
Additionally, the event that sets in motion the big climax of the movie, perpetrated by Mr. Darcy, doesn't really hang together on inspection — it puts all the pieces in place for the characters to get to where we know they must end up, but in the framework of the zombie world, Darcy's decision seems a bit suicidal.
Ultimately, there are just so many disparate elements to reconcile that the film's conclusion falls a bit flat — these undead-ass-kicking sisters are so fierce it's hard to imagine them just settling down into marriage. Though Darcy is a worthy enough companion for Liz in the end, the most fun scenes are the ones where the Bennet women get to take on the world together, and it's hard not to wish for more of that over the courtly romances. That obviously wouldn't be Austen — but it would be a hell of a lot of fun.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is playing in theaters nationwide.