A title like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a gift to the Hollywood marketing gods. Audiences know exactly what they’re getting, and it’s a perfect Valentine’s Day date movie: romantic, but with enough zombie-slaying to appeal to viewers who don’t enjoy romcoms.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes from Seth Grahame-Smith, the same author who brought us Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The Abraham Lincoln movie earned dubious reviews as gimmicky horror mashup, but Pride and Prejudice lends itself surprisingly well to the zombie genre.
Take the Bennet family. In the original novel, Elizabeth and her sisters grew up in a secluded country house, not quite posh enough to easily find themselves a husband. In the zombie version of this story, there’s a reason for this: The surrounding countryside is plagued with the undead, and the Bennet girls are ostracized for having learned their martial arts skills in China instead of Japan—the favored choice of the upper classes.
The Pride and Prejudice story remains more or less intact, with the twist that it takes place in a world full of ravenous monsters. One of the key points in Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story is that they bond over their combat skills, with Elizabeth unwilling to marry any man who wants her to retire from battle. But aside from the zombie-slaying, it’s your typical Regency romance movie: lots of galloping horses, pretty costumes, and famous British actors in supporting roles—including Charles Dance as Mr. Bennet, and Matt Smith as a hilariously cringe-inducing Mr. Collins.
Despite being a work of fanfiction in the most literal sense of the term, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t quite a labor of love. The book actually originated from an editor going through a list of classic literary titles and matching them to genre buzzword characters like ninjas, zombies and pirates. This editor then called Seth Grahame-Smith to write the book, inserting zombie references into Jane Austen‘s text.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies strikes an entertaining balance between romantic ballroom scenes and gore-splattered action, and it’s fun as hell to see Lena Headey play a murderous, one-eyed Regency duchess. The one noticeable problem is that Elizabeth and Darcy just don’t measure up to the original—both in terms of writing, and the performances from Lily James and Sam Riley. Darcy comes across as slightly too unpleasant instead of just socially awkward (a difficult balance in any adaptation), and Elizabeth’s wit has mostly been replaced by badass martial arts skills. The result is a love story that doesn’t flow quite as effectively as most Pride & Prejudice adaptations—including other fanfic versions like Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Admittedly, it feels a little silly to criticize a zombie movie on its treatment of Jane Austen characterization, a detail that won’t matter to most viewers. But in the context of two centuries of Pride & Prejudice fandom, it’s worth mentioning.
Along with the Sherlock Holmes stories, Pride & Prejudice (and Jane Austen in general) is probably the longest-running literary fandom in the modern sense of the term. Fans have been analyzing the novel for 200 years, and there are dozens of published sequels and spinoffs. Crucially, this community of Austen fans has always been predominantly female and with a few exceptions like P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, it rarely receives mainstream recognition. Meanwhile Pride and Prejudice and Zombies won immediate commercial success
This isn’t to say Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is sexist, or that it’s a poor interpretation of the original novel. It’s a fun and engaging movie, but its existence still feels like a subtle reminder of what kind of fanfiction earns mainstream attention, while other writers remain under the radar.
Illustration via Max Fleishman