[WARNING – This review will contain minor spoilers.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any novel’s film adaptation, will pale in comparison with said novel. That’s a lesson learned by just about anyone who’s seen the movie version of a beloved book, but it doesn’t necessarily mean any adaptation must be a bad movie – a good story can be told any number of ways.
In the novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Graham-Smith’s blending of zombie fiction with Jane Austen’s literary classic works in a similar manner – presenting the story of the Bennet sisters and their tribulations in love as we know it, only with large swathes of material where they fight off zombie hordes added in. It’s very much the same story, down to the very text, and the moments of action and gore are worked in with great consideration in order to match Austen’s style.
What began as a really weird and to some purists an absolute heretical idea, works quite well. Using much of Austen’s original prose kept the new zombie element closely tied with her novel’s original intent, and as it turns out, Pride and Prejudice was ripe with chances to feature Lizzie Bennet slaying not only preconceived notions of her character, but the undead as well.
However, the film doesn’t stick with this simple premise. It’s even right there in the title! Pride and Prejudice AND Zombies. For the silly idea to work, both parts are needed, and sadly, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies does neither all that well.
As a telling of Pride and Prejudice, and in particular the love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, PPZ is a rushed mess. Something that would almost be forgivable if their complicated courtship was condensed in order to allow for extra zombie carnage. It does not.
There is no making up for the lack of chemistry between Lily James’ rather charming Elizabeth and Sam Riley’s woefully miscast Mr. Darcy with any cool or noteworthy action. (Seriously, what is going on with Riley’s voice in this movie?) Every fight scene is choppily edited and terribly short, doing little to give us the sense that the Bennet sisters are any great warriors. The fighting is awkward at best, with only one scene in where Elizabeth and Darcy spar being memorable at all.
That scene only works because of its playfulness with the material and how unexpectedly it happens. In fact, that’s the real problem with PPZ – it can never settle on its tone. One moment it’s having fun with the premise of zombies emerging during Regency era England, the next it’s trying too hard to be a serious horror-action movie – with very little horror or action.
In all honestly, the first half off PPZ is quite enjoyable, hitting many of the expected Pride and Prejudice beats while peppering in a growing threat from the undead. Then it all goes to hell when the film plot ditches the second half of the novel, choosing instead a path that strays so far from what both Austen and Grahame-Smith wrote it’s basically a whole different story.
Still, a shoddily adapted film can produce great performances, and PPZ has a few. As mentioned, James is actually quite good as Elizabeth, putting all that Downton Abbey practice to good use. In supporting roles as Mr. Bennet and the Lady Catherine de Bourgh, respectively, Charles Dance and Lena Heady are wonderful but painfully underused, which is downright criminal. There is one standout, however, and it’s Matt Smith’s Mr. Collins. Bringing his naturally fidgety nature to the role of the eager parson, Smith appears to be only one who’s aware he’s in a farce.
Pride + Prejudice + Zombies was never going to be a phenomenal picture (especially given its troubled production history), but it could have at least done right by its source material. When Grahame-Smith brought zombies to Hertfordshire, he did so while taking great care that Jane Austen’s tale of manners remained (mostly) the same. PPZ doesn’t only fail in that regard, it even fails at being a halfway decent zombie movie.