“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s adaptation of the well-loved Austen classic. In this version we join the Bennet sisters in plague-stricken Hertfordshire, where for the past five and fifty years an undead scourge has been on the rampage. Now the delicate members of society are having to add the so called 'deadly arts' to their list of accomplishments. When Elizabeth, the most deadly of the Bennet sisters, finds herself snubbed by the arrogant Mr Darcy at a local ball her first thought is to defend her honour by immediately beheading him. Through the violent bouts of swordplay and dialogue that follow, the young warriors are able to reconcile their differences and the social conventions of zombie ridden society to be united as husband and wife.
As the title suggests this book is attempting to modernising the original Pride and Prejudice with additional scenes of zombie-fuelled carnage. It is a light-hearted comedy which manipulates the conventions of Austen’s novels to create a niche brand of humour. Grahame-Smith has added slight changes in dialogue, adapted the register and shifted the traditional roles of our favourite characters to produce a silly version of the story we know and love. The issues of the novel arise from the premise and the inconsistencies that result from combining such a modern concept with a well-loved piece of literature. Does Pride and Prejudice really need to be modernised? If so, why are zombies the most appropriate addition?
The plot remains almost identical to the original text; boy meets girl, girl hates boy and through a series of circumstances boy and girl are eventually united in matrimony, the Austen archetype for a happy ending. Unfortunately the zombies, who are incorporated into the title with equal weight as the pride and prejudice, have a very minimal effect on the narrative. The unmentionables tend to turn up and cause small amounts of trouble only to fade away into the background once more. Had this book been more ambitious and been brave enough to affect some serious change in the original novel’s plotting, it might have been more successful in incorporating comedic, undead violence and Georgian society. The inclusion of zombies does not do any great damage to the plausibility of the plot; modern audiences are altogether too familiar with the concept of zombies to find them challenging to accept, but it is a concept that seems to have been overworked in popular culture. The author has therefore been rather safe in choosing zombies as a sporadic comical addition and has been so cautious in their inclusion to render them completely external from the bulk of the narrative.
However, the fault does not lie with the lack of zombies but with the essentially flawed idea behind this book. Pride and Prejudice is still a relevant and successful novel, it does not need to pander to popular, modern ideas in order to be enjoyed. If the action had been set sometime after the ending of Pride and Prejudice Grahame-Smith would have had the freedom to construct an original narrative, supporting the inclusion of zombies and still basing the comedy around familiar characters. As it stands the enjoyment of this book relies too much upon the existent plot to be appreciated for its own sake.
The premise of this book also creates issues in the pre-existing world it attempts to manipulate. Let us assume for a second that there is no significant, logical issue with the concept of a zombie apocalypse. Does it follow that a Georgian, patriarchal society would consent to the training of women in Chinese and Japanese martial arts? That dojos would become an integral part of every English stately home? That English gentlemen would have no issue fighting fist to fist with the fairer sex? Most probably not.
Furthermore, the traditional characterisations struggle under these new expectations of violent behaviour. Lydia and Kitty, who are two of the silliest girls in the country, remain so despite the fact that they, along with their sisters have apparently spent three years in China training in the ‘deadly arts’. Strangely, three years of military discipline has done nothing to improve their characters or to restrain them from their famous, ridiculous antics. This is a great shame since Pride and Prejudice owes a great deal of its enduring success to the charm and energy of its central characters and even to some of its more odious inventions. The great realism with which Austen crafted her characters is sadly trampled underfoot for the sake of zombies.
Nevertheless, there are some positive things to be said for this book. The writing itself was well done and applied with the right degree of respect for the original wording. Grahame-Smith has managed to blend in the sections of his own making with the same tone, register and energy that singles out Austen’s style. Thankfully, the dialogue has been upheld and kept very close to the original exchanges, maintaining the intensity of Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship as well as creating conflicts for comedic value. The contrast of the traditional and the modern, the elevated speech and the gruesome fight scenes create an opportunity for parodic observations and the interesting displacement of characters from their typical roles. Conflicts are also created along gender boundaries for the amusement of the reader. We see the female fighters having to balance the requirements of modesty and their desire to defeat the zombie scourge. After all, how does one decapitate a zombie without displaying one’s ankles?
The success of these comedic elements depends upon the reader not taking them too seriously. Amusement lies in the contrast of the familiar characters and the inconsistency of the additional extras; zombie scenes are incorporated well but rendered ridiculous by the elevated style in which they are written. The comedy is absurd because it is meant to be so. Even the illustrations, which punctuate key scenes, are verging on the farcical - showing our favourite, polite characters locked in mortal combat with zombies or beating each other to a pulp. It is not that this kind of comedy does not work, but that it struggles to co-inside with the plot which explores serious emotional and social realities.
The problem with this book is that it is confused. The combination of a serious plot with zombie humour fails to achieve either its original social comments or its comedic goals. Although some lengths have been taken to ensure that this is not just a butchering of a classical novel I can’t help but wish it had gone further and stepped away from the safety of the traditional plot and therefore avoided the issues of characterisation and plausibility. While the additional scenes have been sculpted in a subtle and complimentary style there is simply more to be gained by reading the original Pride and Prejudice.