Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

26 08 2009

Author: Sean Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Released: 2009

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Anyone who was forced to read (and actually managed to get as far as the first sentence on the first page) Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in high school should recognize the similarity between the above sentence and Austen’s “truth universally acknowledged” about undead men being in want of wives.

The first sentence of any novel is meant to draw the reader in. It is the first sip  of a long, tall glass of lemonade that could prove to be perfect or too sour. It is what makes you want to continue reading or push the book away with disgust.

The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies proves to be just right. Any Austen fan not fickle enough to be concerned when someone meddles with a classic and anyone interested in cult classics would be intrigued by it, especially when coupled with the photo of “Elizabeth Bennet”* as a zombie on the cover.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book fails to deliver the satirical punch of the first line as it falls flat and oftentimes feels lazy for a grand total of 319 pages – which, fortunately, clocks in below the original’s 360 (according to the Barnes & Noble “Classics” edition).

The first few chapters, much like the first sentence, are written brilliantly. The mixture of Austen’s classical prose and Grahame-Smith’s ideas is comical and relatively seamless. Anyone unfamiliar with the original may find themselves pleasantly surprised to happen upon Mr. and Mrs. Bennet discussing a neighboring estate. Mrs. Bennet is as pluckish as ever and Mr. Bennet seems to have become outspoken enough to tell his wife what he really thinks of her in ways which she would understand – even if she often chooses to gloss over his comments. Lizzie is as even-headed as ever – though now she has kick-ass physical prowess to boot. Jane is just as much Elizabeth’s confidante. And Lydia and Kitty are as officer-crazed as ever, while Mary gets lost in the fold.

The zombie back story is also set in these chapters, albeit it falls short of the seamless integration that the characters have in Grahame-Smith’s writing – as it does for much of the novel. It’s to be understood that some sort of plague has hit London whose ill-effects include the transformation into zombies with a lust for brains. This illness is transmitted – much like any other type of zombie plot – through a bite. For some unexplained reason, the Bennet sisters have been charged by the King to protect their town through the use of martial arts, in which they were trained in Japan.

The zombies are an important part of the story for a few chapters. Travelers and couriers often don’t arrive at their destination as they have run into these “unmentionables,” the Bennet sisters judge men on how well they appear to be able to fight off a zombie attack and the Netherfield Ball is ruined when a group of zombies kills and eats the waitstaff.

However, it is about that time where the zombies disappear for chapters on end. The book becomes a pared down version of Austen’s original with some scenes and dialogue cut out, but little added in terms of new ideas. It seems as though Grahame-Smith was diligently writing a book report on Pride and Prejudice when he suddenly remembered he was supposed to be writing about zombies so every 20 or so pages he would reference Elizabeth’s katana skills or kill off an unimportant character.

It isn’t until Elizabeth travels to see her friend Charlotte after her marriage to Mr. Collins that the zombies reappear in-depth. Charlotte has been afflicted with the sickness and the description of her transformation (which is apparently a long and slow process) is delightfully disgusting. Charlotte has become somewhat of a simpleton and her mental capacities and her physical health deteriorate further as time goes on. Once Lizzie leaves Charlotte, though, the zombies disappear again.

Aside from a carriage fight and mentions when Lizzie visits Pemberley, the zombies are hardly seen until the end of the novel.

While the zombies – which seem as though they should be an integral part of the novel as they are referenced in the title – don’t provide much to hold a reader’s interest, the new, more vulgar personalities of Lizzie and Darcy do.

While Austen had Elizabeth and Darcy verbally spar in a demure fashion appropriate for the 1800s, Grahame-Smith brings their flirtation into the open. Elizabeth frequently colors at the double entendre Darcy drops into conversation, and towards the end of the novel Elizabeth, herself, hints at some brazen “skills” she might have. The impropriety of their conversation is well worth reading.

George Wickham also provides a reason to continue muddling through the zombie-less pages. While he could be used much more to add to the plot – he seems to be thrown in as an afterthought in many scenes – the new circumstances surrounding his marriage to Lydia are enjoyable enough to discover on your own.

All in all, the book seems ill-suited to carry the “& Zombies” part of the title. Their sparse inclusion seems lazy and ill-conceived, but the more modern personalities of Austen’s timeless characters are what really makes Grahame-Smith’s adaptation shine.

The real question is if it can be pulled off once again with the next classical satire “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” which is slated for a Sept. 15, 2009 release. One hopes that Ben H. Winters manages to find a balance between Austen’s prose and his own additions that Grahame-Smith failed to do.

Rating: It’s hard to classify this book as Good or Bad. It has it’s bad parts and it’s really crappy parts, but any true Austen fan with a flair for the original would enjoy it. It could have been done better, though which leaves us with a final rating that leans towards Bad.

*The cover photo is actually a take on a portrait of Marcia Fox by William Beechey

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