Almost any endeavor these days, it seems, can be enhanced by the addition of pirates, zombies, or ninjas. Nobody minds terribly much when Disney bolsters its bottom line with pirates, or a new crop of post-apocalyptic nights-of-the-living-dead lurch into theaters. But when the fiendish undead are turned loose to wander around beloved classics of English literature—what then? It’s the final victory of Satan’s hordes, right?
Astonishingly, no. Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s sly zombification of Jane Austen’s Regency-era romance, is no act of literary desecration. To the already-irresistible story of the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr. Darcy, Grahame-Smith adds only the lightest sprinkling of walking corpses, Shaolin training, katana duels, dojos on country estates, and young ladies succumbing to the strange plague. In his version, in addition to balls and officers and marriage, the Bennett sisters are committed to the defense of England against the undead armies of Lucifer, through their mastery of deadly Oriental arts. Yet such is the emotional power of Austen’s story and characters that not even revivified brain-chompers (easily fooled by cauliflowers, happily) detract from Elizabeth and Darcy’s rocky love affair.
As a matter of fact, Grahame-Smith’s amendments add some interest, pathos, and essential motivation to Austen’s subplots. When Charlotte Lucas marries Elizabeth’s erstwhile suitor Mr. Collins, the explanation turns out to be a zombie bite on a carriage ride that Charlotte knows will eventually lead to her becoming one of the “unmentionables.” She seeks, she tells Elizabeth, only a taste of married life, plus a husband who can behead her when the time comes. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt and Mr. Collins’ patroness, meets the girl who is rumored to have stolen Darcy away from her own sickly daughter not merely with harsh words, but with a drawn sword and a battle to the death. Wickham gets his legs broken to restore Lydia’s honor, a circumstance bound to gratify those with a sense of justice.
Grahame-Smith simplifies Austen’s complex verbiage to a degree, but retains her enchanting style and vocabulary. When he politely turns the focus to ultraviolent mayhem—at one point, Elizabeth strangles one ninja with his own entrails and takes a bite from the fresh heart of another—the transition takes place with polished seamlessness. Such is the accomplishment of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies that after reveling in its timeless intrigue, it’s difficult to remember how Austen’s novel got along without the undead. What begins as a gimmick ends with renewed appreciation of the indomitable appeal of Austen’s language, characters, and situations, and unbridled enjoyment in the faithfulness with which they have been transformed into the last, best hope of English civilization.