Thursday, April 14, 2016

Reanimating a Beloved Corpse: Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Lily James as Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

There are so many times in my life where I wish I had a time machine. It would have a vast array of applications, both big and small, from correcting gaffs in my own life (looking at you, English degree) to visiting some of history’s greatest moments. Today, I would like a time machine so I can visit Jane Austen around 1814 and inform her of her looming 2016 screenwriting credit for Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There would be lots of explaining to do:
–  "... so because of this ‘public domain’ idea, in 202 years you're going to be credited as a writer on a zombie movie."
– “Why are they called ‘zombies?”
– “I think it’s a Haitian voodoo thing!”
– “And they eat brains? Why brains?”
– “I… ah… you know, I don’t know, Jane. It’s canon. I’m sure it’s on the Wikipedia page.”
– “Should I have included zombies in the original?”
– “No. Definitely not.”
As a fellow spinster writer, I feel a kind of kinship with Jane Austen. I’d like to think she’d be pleasantly amused by this news – more so, I’m sure, with the assurance that the reviews aren’t great and yet not a single critic faults her for the film’s problems. It’s almost as if she wrote all the good parts of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’s screenplay and somehow we all know it.

Jane Austen’s latest (and probably only) foray into zombie films does indeed arise from the concept of “public domain,” a legal loophole previously exploited by novelist Seth Grahame-Smith which allows individuals to use works that are more than 100 years old without purchasing the rights. Grahame-Smith’s parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, caused a sensation in 2009 by splicing text from Austen’s original Pride and Prejudice from 1813 with a lively new zombie-apocalypse setting and subplot. In the Austen/Grahame-Smith novel, Lizzy Bennet and her four sisters, Jane, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, are tasked not only with navigating middle-class life in rural Regency England, but now also with dispatching legions of the undead using their training as Shaolin warriors. Mother England has been overrun with a mysterious zombie plague, vaguely suggested as a consequence of her rampant colonialism. The gentry and peasants alike succumb. Many brains are eaten. Grahame-Smith’s novel became a graphic novel, the graphic novel became a calendar and stationary (which I owned), and all eventually trickled into this 2016 film directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down). It seems like a natural choice: Pride and Prejudice historically plays well on a big screen; likewise, zombies are at their most terrifying when they’re seen in all their jerky, shambling glory. Combining the two into a high-intensity action film with sumptuous period costumes and a smidge of bodice-ripping should be a hit. It should be – but as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the film demonstrates, sometimes combining two great things makes for one kind of weird, lame thing that limps along for 108 minutes supported by a couple funny performances and halfway decent fight scenes.

The problem with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, ultimately, is its pacing. Like every good romance since time immemorial, Pride and Prejudice, in whatever format it’s presented, relies on a slow build. BBC’s acclaimed Pride and Prejudice series, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, understood this. Leveraging the tension between consuming romance and restrained Regency era manners, it held the audience’s attention for the entirety of its impressive 327-minute running time. We struggled with Lizzy and Darcy throughout their mistakes and misunderstandings, we read between the lines of fumbled formalities and too-long eye contact, and, in doing so, we ultimately earned the happily ever after as much as the characters did. A successful Pride and Prejudice not only benefits from these subtle details – it is entirely composed of them. A Pride and Prejudice without them, with or without the added entertainment value of zombies, is not a Pride and Prejudice. At best it’s a dramatic reading; at worst, it's a puppet show.

Sam Riley, Matt Smith and Lily James in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The word I’m looking for to describe what, exactly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is should be “parody.” It should be. On a technical level, it fits the description but its success as a parody rivals its success as a romance. The film’s best jokes are embedded in the juxtaposition between the old text and the new; the gag is what Grahame-Smith and Steers changed, and understanding why they changed it. Ultimately, the best of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’s humour will be lost on audiences unfamiliar with Austen’s original novel. A little bit of slapstick and a couple goofy performances might garner some laughs otherwise, but they hardly make for a successful comedy. This begs the question: if the Pride and Prejudice parody is neither Pride and Prejudice nor a wholly successful parody, what exactly is it? Maybe it would have saved itself if it had, at least, been a standout action film. The fight scenes are decently choreographed and entertaining enough when they take place during some of Austen’s most recognizable dialogue, but the film’s PG-13 rating is too safe and reins the film’s gore and violence in a little too tightly for the action angle to take centre stage. The end result is three disparate parts that are adequate without being strong enough to stand on their own, ultimately contributing to a muddled and unremarkable whole. The original story has no time to breathe; the action has no momentum and is hampered by the wet blanket of a half-hearted romance. It’s amusing in the way a high school improv team can be amusing, but in the end nothing really gels.

The strange resultant sludge that is this movie’s plot is worth wading through for the performances of the supporting cast, however. Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) plays a Lady Catherine de Bourgh transformed from the stuffy, condescending aristocrat we know and hate to an eye-patch wearing, legendary samurai warrior. Strangely, this Catherine de Bourgh, holding a severed head and screaming into the night, winds up being somehow less intimidating than the original Austen character, in the most welcome way possible. Appropriately enamoured with Headey’s very cool Lady Catherine is Matt Smith’s Parson Collins. Smith, known for his acclaimed turn as The Doctor on BBC’s Doctor Who from 2010-2013, turns what is arguably the most unpleasant, insufferable character in literary canon into one of the best parts of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He plays for comedy here and he succeeds; Collins is awkward, clueless, and weird without being overly creepy. You don’t quite want him to marry any of the Bennet sisters but you don’t totally want him to leave the screen either.

Comparatively, the romantic leads that form the lynchpin of the story were on the weaker side. Lily James makes for a much softer Lizzy Bennet than the one in Grahame-Smith’s novel, seemingly trying to strike a balance between Austen’s “Lizzy classic” and Grahame-Smith’s zombie-killing, feminism-on-steroids “Lizzy 2.0,” but what she achieves in the end is a character too wishy-washy to truly be either incarnation completely. She holds her own with both the classic dialogue and the new fight scenes, which is no small feat, but falls short in her creation of a cohesive character. On the other hand, Sam Riley’s “Colonel Darcy” is consistent but, for the life of me, I could not get past his gruff, Christian-Bale's-Batman-meets-frog voice. I couldn’t. Unfamiliar with Riley’s work, I can’t say for certain if that’s his voice or just a lazy attempt at building an identifiable character but, whatever the case, it didn’t work for me. In fact, it was downright distracting. While Lily James has her fingers in all the romance, action, and comedy pies with debatable success, Riley does the opposite, appearing to focus the majority of his efforts on being funny. Whether the fact that he misses the mark says more about the screenplay or his performance is anyone’s guess.

All in all, Burr Steers had some successes with his film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but which of them can be attributed to his adaptation and not the original text, or even Seth Grahame-Smith’s rehashed version, is hard to pin down. The finished product feels like the message at the end of a long game of telephone that started in 1813 and passed through numerous edits, interpretations, and reimaginings, the original message altered and diluted with each subsequent retelling. I’d rate the final incarnation of the story, this 2016 film, as a solid two arms and a femur out of a whole zombie; it’s amusing for open-minded Austen fans that have an hour and a half to kill, but backing up a “telephone call” or two to the Grahame-Smith novel or, even, that novel’s beautifully illustrated graphic novel adaptation by Tony Lee and Cliff Richards, would be worth it for the Regency reader jonesing for some better parody.
– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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