Ever since Robert Van Winkle's pseudonym Vanilla Ice confidently sampled the bass line from Queen and David Bowie's classic "Under Pressure" the creation of new materials pilfered from past successes has become American artistic custom. We now see movie theaters overwrought with remakes, reworkings and re-imaginings of once classic films. Gus Van Sant made a nearly universally panned shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock classic Psycho, Spielberg and Lucas brought an underwhelming belated sequel to the excellent Indiana Jones trilogy, and remakes like Death Race, The Amityville Horror, and The Cat In The Hat have all proved more disappointing than the originals. It is a great, career-endangering gamble to attach oneself to the re-creation or redesign of what was already great. We even have a timeless adage summing that danger, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
When I first heard that Seth Grahame-Smith had infused Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with the gore and brutality of zombie invasion, I was intrigued. The book found a solid spot on the New York Times Best Seller's list, and reviewed extremely well across the internet. But I did not know upon first purchasing the book, just how well Grahame-Smith worked within the boundaries of the original story to create something different, but altogether the same. The back cover description closes with the inauspicious author's notes: "Jane Austen is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and other great masterpieces of English literature. Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature. He lives in Los Angeles." Grahame-Smith's lack of pedigree does not foretell a failure in his endeavor to change a classic into a newly riveting, entirely enjoyable tale of love, refinement and brutal decapitation. In fact, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies succeeds in almost all of his efforts. And his failures are extremely minor.
The story opens just as does the original. Mrs. Bennet eagerly attempts to secure husbands for her four daughters. The story centers on the elder two, Jane and Elizabeth, who in this rendition, have been well trained in the deadly arts of Kung Fu and rifling by their father and the Shaolin monks of China. Both are competent warriors who feel responsible to protect their neighborhood and countryside from the plague of "stricken unmentionables". These zombies wander the countryside making travel by carriage, by horse, or by foot a complicated ordeal. And when it rains, the ground softens, allowing more than the usual horde to rise easily from their graves.
As a whole the original text is intact. Elizabeth disproves of, but later warms to cavalier Mr. Darcy. Jane's romantic feelings for Mr. Bingley are thwarted. And Elizabeth's friend Charlotte weds the disgusting, overly doting Mr. Collins. The motives for these actions, though, are altered by Grahame-Smith's infusion of a brutal world wrecked by the undead. Elizabeth grows to love Darcy for his skills as a warrior and his actions against Wickham's youthful attempt to murder a stable boy. Mr. Bingley leaves the countryside after a pack of unmentionables devours his house staff, leaving Jane despondent. And Charlotte, discovering herself stricken following an attack by a zombie trapped beneath a fallen carriage, marries Collins in hopes of enjoying the wane moments of her life. Grahame-Smith demonstrates the fracturing of Charlotte's humanity through gradually collapsing dialog and a difficulty using silverware or behaving in a ladylike manner. There are more infusions that work successfully, providing additional motive to the characters that seems more real to a modern audience than those of fearing never marrying at 24 years. Lady Catherine remains as a stalwart antagonist to young Elizabeth's hopes for success and happiness.
For fear of spoiling the entire work, I will halt my summary here. The book includes excellent illustrations that capture a few powerful scenes of zombie mayhem, duels with ninjas and a standoff between Elizabeth and Darcy. And, as expected, the story ends like the original, with their coupling. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies affords Elizabeth, Jane and Lady Catherine an extreme power as women and as warriors. They are not fragile and instead present a strong model for young women lost in the trappings of love. It is a modernisation of the classic, one that respects and lauds its strongest characters even more than the original.
The only failings come in some all too obvious contrivances of narrative. As Grahame-Smith infuses some scenes with zombie attacks, allowing Elizabeth to unsheathe her Katana and fire rounds from her Brown Bess, he is trapped in the inability to address them in the bulk of the text. Instead, he relies on phrases like, "and she did not mention the events of the ride to anyone at the party" and "the girls agreed never to speak of it again." While tongue-in-cheek, these dismissals of the action left me a little disappointed. He did not endeavor to rewrite the story entirely, however, so their necessity is excusable, and at times, hilarious.
This reworking is more homage than alteration. Grahame-Smith clearly respects the original and tries to inject humor and action sparingly. At it's heart Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is entirely Jane Austen's work, merely boosted in spots with gore and horror that provide a goofy, nearly Raimi-an violence. I will end this post with a quote that sums up Grahame-Smith's caring for the original text and his passion for blood lust:
"It was some consolation to think that [Darcy] would soon fall at the end of [Elizabeth's] blade--and that in less than a fortnight she herself would be with Jane again, and enabled to contribute to the recovery of her spirits, beginning with the presentation of Darcy's heart and head."