‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in search of more brains.” So opens the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a much-hyped mashup arranged by Seth Graeme-Smith between (a) what some literary critics view as the greatest novel of all time and (b) hordes of reanimated corpses eager to devour the brains of every last man, woman, and child in the British Isles.
Since the announcement of its title, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has generated an online buzz comparable only, perhaps, to that surrounding the movie Snakes on a Plane. Milking the novelty as heavily as possible, the publisher chose April Fools’ Day as its release date. (In fact, some people who thought the book couldn’t really be getting published said the release date proved it was an elaborate online prank.) Yet the novel is no hoax — it debuted third on the New York Times bestseller list.
It has already ignited Hollywood’s fancy, with bidding for a film adaptation in progress. Angling to please the newly discovered Austen/horror market, a film called Pride and Predator will soon be in production, setting loose the title character of the Predator film series to attack the Bennett family — under the guidance of none other than Sir Elton John’s production company.
Could this union of slaying and wooing manage to heal the disagreements between male and female on the eternal question of what makes a good story? Or is it a literary desecration, a poor Photoshopping of bridled passion and unbridled violence?
Graeme-Smith’s version of perhaps the most beloved love story of all time takes place against a zombie-infested backdrop in which the England of Austen’s day is struck by a mysterious plague of what the British euphemize as “unmentionables.” The Bennett sisters are on the front lines in His Majesty’s Service, defending the inhabitants of the countryside from dismemberment. Trained under Shaolin kung fu masters from the Orient, they display unmatched ferocity in “the deadly arts.” Katana swords in one hand and embroidered handkerchiefs in the other, the girls must navigate the intricacies of both battle and courtship to avoid the unfortunate fate of winding up undead — or unmarried.
Yes, the book features both zombies and ninjas. No wonder Entertainment Weekly declared itself “officially beyond stoked” months before the book’s release.
According to Graeme-Smith, “about 85 percent” of the published novel is “the original Jane Austen text.” Zombies garnish, rather than dominate, his version, which follows its source almost scene by scene. Despite the ridiculous premise, it is, in some regards, more faithful to the text than adaptations like Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Each reference to wit or breeding conveniently converts to a discussion of skill or training in the fight against the zombies. The famously cutting dialogue of Austen takes on the additional combative tone of banter between warriors. Wordplay needs, after all, only one additional letter to become swordplay. Violence becomes a realization of the harsh yet subtle exchanges for which the Austen book is famous. Our heroine rejects Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal with not merely a verbal rebuke but an actual kick to the face. And Miss Elizabeth Bennett’s final showdown with reluctant future in-law Lady Catherine de Bourgh, famed for her Kyoto-trained ninja deadliness, demonstrates the strength of both women with brutal clarity.
The horrific pastiche sometimes augments the original story. Charlotte Lucas’s desperate marriage to dull Mr. Collins seems all the more understandable when she is not only becoming an old maid, but succumbing to the strange plague after a zombie bite. The foolishness of Mrs. Bennett, and of Elizabeth’s silly younger sisters as they hunt for husbands, is all the more preposterous when they should be out eradicating the living dead. And why else would a regiment be in Meryton, instead of fighting Napoleon, if not to protect His Majesty’s subjects from the dreadful unmentionables?
Unfortunately, the bloodlust and severe warrior code imposed upon these gentlemen and gentlewomen renders them less likable. Instead of vowing to despise Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth resolves to “hold Darcy’s heart, still beating, in her hand,” and, at another point, to drink his blood from his skull. Hardening the characters for battle results in a romance that is less tender, and based less on the value of each other’s character than on fighting prowess.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes across as a particularly clever teenager’s joke, made to while away the time of an honors English student in study hall. “I say, you know what would be awesome? If Mr. Darcy was like, a ninja. A ninja who fights zombies!” This sophomoric flair is especially pronounced in the profusion of eye-roll-inducing puns regarding the “balls” so frequently attended by characters in the novel.
One who probes for a deeper meaning in the addition of zombies to this classic searches in vain. Zombies have been on the rise as a cultural reference point since the time of zombie czar George Romero. From zombie shuffles in various cities to the steady increase in zombie films and video games, the zombie apocalypse appears to be growing nearer each day. In March, another zom-rom-com novel, Breathers, was released, and even before publication, it secured a movie deal partnered with indie darling Diablo Cody, the mind behind the surprise hit Juno.
Why the burgeoning interest in zombies? Is it the incarnation of some unfortunate modern zeitgeist? Do we feel ourselves mindless entities, neither truly alive nor dead — unable to feel any blows struck against us, stumbling on senselessly in an unforgiving urge to consume? Do we long for a clear-cut, inhuman evil in the world, and for the chance to make ourselves unquestionably heroic through our fight against it?
Some might support these interpretations, and more serious zombie fare that explores these angles does exist. Yet, despite the veritable zombie infestation, few would characterize them as an encompassing metaphor for society. The modern deployment of zombies as a cultural meme, particularly within romances, tends to be done more for comic relief. And what running (lurching?) joke could be more mindless than a zombie? If their prevalence speaks to any meaningful trend, it is only because of the ironic distance that zombies afford as a convenient non sequitur. A typical male might balk at the thought of reading Pride and Prejudice in public, save as a part of an elaborate seduction scheme. But being apprehended with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would result in less taunting and more high-fives.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is assuredly a derivative work, and the greatest pleasure the reader will find in it comes from the original words of Austen herself. Rather like the old Dadaist painting of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee, the beauty of the work endures beneath the thin veneer of absurdity. Unlike Dada, though, it never takes itself seriously as art. Graeme-Smith, who calls himself Austen’s “co-author,” includes among his oeuvre The Big Book of Porn and the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and self-deprecatingly declares in his bioline that he “once took a class in English literature.”
And the book works, in its own way, because it understands that it’s a joke. The novel closes with a series of “Discussion Questions” for the thoughtful reader, with the final one addressing the allegations that Miss Austen may have simply thrown in the zombies as a last-minute marketing scheme, asking: “Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?”
Yes, we can. And, we hope, some of the book’s readers will imagine it sufficiently to choose to explore Austen’s work further. If you’re after brains, in the end, that might be the best place to start.