This post contains spoilers for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the new film directed by Burr Steers, is adapted from the 2009 novelty novel in which author Seth Grahame-Smith injected scenes of battle with the undead into passages lifted wholesale from Jane Austen’s novel. Such a fantastical take on the literary classic is as outrageous as it sounds: It’s a film that reimagines the Bennet sisters as accomplished zombie-fighting warriors and invents a geopolitical backstory about how the plague of zombie-ism came to afflict Regency-era England. Yet like Grahame-Smith’s clever revamping, the movie is remarkably faithful to Austen’s text. With the obvious exception of the scenes where Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote), and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) are beheading undead bodies—of which there are plenty—Steers mostly hews closely to the 1813 novel of manners.
Steers, who also wrote the screenplay, takes many lines directly from Austen. Bingley and Darcy’s first exchange—in which Darcy dismisses Elizabeth as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”—comes almost verbatim from the book, as do many other pivotal scenes, including Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins (the crowd-pleasing Matt Smith) and Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth (which involves some hand-to-hand combat in the film). Although Steers omits many minor characters and combines secondary scenes to make time for zombie fights, he takes great pains to paint the major characters accurately in the limited time he has: Elizabeth is recognizably headstrong, Darcy standoffish, Jane trusting, Bingley suggestible, Collins oblivious, Charlotte pragmatic, and Mrs. Bennet frivolous.
And most of the instances in which the script does alter Austen’s text are smart, subtle, and faithful to the spirit of the novel. For instance, the movie renders Darcy a professional zombie-killer—which partially explains why he quickly earns a reputation in Hertfordshire for being “the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world.” (After all, he’s tasked with taking out townspeople’s loved ones as quickly as possible after they’re infected.) Early in the original book, Jane falls ill while visiting her beau, Bingley, which gives Elizabeth occasion to visit and spar with Darcy. On screen, Jane crosses paths with a few zombies on her way to Bingley’s estate, so when she falls ill it’s initially unclear whether she’s been bitten—which gives more gravity to Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s disagreement.
Another example of zombification that enhances, rather than betrays, Pride and Prejudice comes when Darcy writes Elizabeth a letter explaining his beef with his former friend Wickham (the magnificently smarmy Jack Huston). In Austen’s text, the general gist is that, after Darcy’s father’s death, Wickham felt entitled to more than his fair share of inheritance, and that he seduced Darcy’s younger sister in order to gain access to her fortune. The movie layers in a bit more background here, revealing that Darcy’s father died after being bitten by a zombie, and that Darcy himself had to put his father out of his mercy. This difficult but necessary act of love aligns nicely with the stoic but goodhearted character Austen created.
Unfortunately, that alteration—the circumstances of Darcy’s father’s death—also points toward the only blunder in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. We discover that Wickham actually infected Darcy’s father to hasten his inheritance, because Wickham is—spoiler alert—a zombie. And not just an ordinary zombie, it turns out: In the movie, Wickham is the Antichrist who is organizing hordes of zombies to defeat humanity and bring on the apocalypse.
I know, I know: This twist sounds like a funny, knowing wink at the very absurdity of the premise of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But the revelation of Wickham’s true character nearly undoes the good work that Steers has done in balancing the zombie stuff with the romantic stuff. Turning Wickham into a no-holds-barred, 100-percent-evil baddie ultimately goes against the spirit of Austen’s novel, in which all the characters are flawed to a greater or lesser degree but no one is beyond redemption. Wickham is supposed to be a garden-variety schmuck, not Satan incarnate. By the end of the book, readers feel repulsed by and a little bit sorry for Wickham. He’s also supposed to be a relatively minor obstacle on Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s path to marriage—by making him the Antichrist, Steers gives Wickham far more import than Austen intended. This is not even to mention that turning Wickham into a pure villain erases Lydia Bennett’s role in their disastrous elopement—which is a shame, as Lydia is one of the most entertaining characters in the book.
Complaining about too much zombie stuff in a movie called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies might seem like missing the point, and I understand that action movies more or less require a battle between hero and villain at their climax. I just wish Steers had left Wickham out of it, and engineered a zombie conflict that didn’t change the basic narrative of Pride and Prejudice so drastically. Part of the great joy of the first part of the film is the deftness with which Steers integrates the threat of the undead into Austen’s beloved novel of manners. It’s a shame the second act throws all that away.