If you want a Pride and Prejudice that is faithful to the original book, watch the 1995 BBC version. If you want a sweeping romantic version, the 2005 film is perfect. And if you want an abridged version that combines your enjoyment of period pieces and action movies, then Pride and Prejudice and Zombies might just be the film for you.
PPZ is a film for very specific fans of Jane Austen’s original novel. Fans that know the story, but who don’t mind some wild deviations for the source material. Knowledge of the book is important when going in, because otherwise, the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Some huge moments from the book were skipped over completely. It’s like the writer sat down and said, “Look, I know Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley was a really important moment for her and Darcy’s relationship. You know what else could be an important bonding experience? Them fighting a crapton of zombies. Wouldn’t you rather see that?”
And in this case, I absolutely did want to see Lizzie and Darcy fighting off hordes of zombies, even though it meant skipping over Pemberley entirely. Changes from the original story meant Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy changed more quickly than usual. In fact, pretty much all the relationships were rushed. The film relied heavily on the audience to already be familiar with the relationships, and to presumably root for the couples based on their attachment to the original story, not necessarily because of what was shown on screen. Because Pride and Prejudice is so well known, the film was banking on audience members (consciously or unconsciously) filling in the gaps in the characters’ relationships, or even in the characters’ storylines.
Some characters (Charlotte, Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Hurst) were there for like two minutes and then vanished. Charlotte was there so she could marry Mr. Collins and Elizabeth had a reason to go to Rosings Park. Caroline was basically there because someone had to tell Jane that Mr. Bingley peaced out. After their purposes were fulfilled, the minor characters evaporated. Maybe we’re supposed to assume they had been eaten by zombies, but their sudden disappearances felt sloppy. There was also a zombie conspiracy storyline, which was clunkily inserted. The “twist” was obvious, and it made the other characters seem oblivious for not picking up on it earlier.
The best way to describe PPZ is fanfiction made into a film. It was made by people who like and are familiar with Pride and Prejudice. The beginning of Mr. Collin’s proposal scene in PPZ was an obvious reference to the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. And one of the best moments of the film was a little nod and wink to the 1995 version. Clearly, the minds behind this film are fans of Pride and Prejudice and its various incarnations, and expect that their audience is made up of fans too. Much like fan fiction isn’t for everyone, PPZ is not for everyone. It’s for a niche of people who, because they know and love the original story and characters, don’t need to revisit every plot point in detail. It features a greatest hit of plot points, trimming the rest, so there’s time to put the heroes in new and absurd situations. Even though Elizabeth Bennet has never needed a sword to be a badass, it is still really satisfying to watch her destroy a bunch of zombies.
Lily James proves once again she is a capable leading lady in her portrayal of Elizabeth. She had less opportunities than other Lizzies past to demonstrate her razor sharp wit, since some verbal sparring had to be cut to make time for actual sparring. But she captured Elizabeth’s spirit.
Sam Riley is a charismatic leading man, but I’m not convinced he’s a good Mr. Darcy. This has less to do with Riley’s performance, and more to do with the writing, and how modern adaptations portray Mr. Darcy. In the book, Mr. Darcy was an arrogant snob, and it was only through his relationship with Elizabeth that he starts to change. Recent Darcys tend to just be socially awkward (looking at you, Matthew MacFadyen of the 2005 film*). Maybe modern adaptations think showing Darcy’s evolution, most of which is internal, and takes place away from the main action, would be too difficult to show on screen. So they would rather just have a socially awkward, misunderstood Darcy than risk having audiences think their beloved heroine ended up with a jerk. In this film, Mr. Darcy’s brusqueness can be attributed mostly to fact that he’s an officer fighting a zombie apocalypse. 90% of his rudeness comes from him focusing on the task at hand, and the task is almost always life or death. Really, he’s just an uptight workaholic looking for love. So while he’s not the haughty Darcy of the book, Riley is a solid romantic lead.
In addition to great leads, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had an amazing supporting cast. Charles Dance was criminally underused as Mr. Bennet. Lena Headey was fantastic as a one-eyed, battle-hardened Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Matt Smith as Mr. Collins (or Pastor Collins) stole the show. I’m trying to think of a recent performance I have loved more than Smith’s Mr. Collins. Everything he did and said was hilarious, and I hope he gets more comedic roles after this.
It’s a shame Pride and Prejudice and Zombies failed to resonate with wider audiences and vanished quickly from theaters. I’m definitely part of this film’s target audience, which unfortunately seems to have been a small target. But I think once PPZ is released on DVD, it might get a get a second life as a cult classic. As a blend of a romantic period piece and action comedy, it’s perfect for movie nights. And as long as you’re not an Austen purist, watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fun spin on a classic story.
*Before I get anyone jumping to defend MacFadyen, let me just say, I liked the 2005 version, and I liked him in it, I just don’t think the film was the best representation of Book Darcy.
Other thoughts: One thing that bothered me was the supposed training program used by the elite, who supposedly went to Japan to train. I could go along with the zombies. But asking me to believe Japan was the trendy place to train was a step too far. I find it hard to believe that British people from the 1800s would travel abroad to learn from other countries about their cultural traditions. Granted, in this universe, they were too busy fighting zombies to force their Britishness on unsuspecting nations. But I just think Regency era people would stick to their British combat traditions, because let’s face it, British people in the 1800s really liked British things.
Not to mention, in no universe would Japan in the early 1800s let a bunch of foreigners enter and run around, training in martial arts. Especially not if those foreigners were potentially carrying zombie plague. They would have shut that down faster than you can say ‘isolationism’. The training situation was asking me to stretch my imagination just a little too much.