Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Quirk Books, April 2009
As a Jane Austen enthusiast, it was with apprehension that I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a recent adaption of Austen’s most popular novel. I need not, however have worried. By the opening line I was smiling and by the bottom of the first page, chuckling aloud. Because once you put aside the disturbing notion of Austen’s work being toyed with, of being invaded in the most disturbing of manners, and ignore any literary sensibilities you may have, you simply cannot deny that the addition of Zombies (or ‘Unmentionables’ as they are called), is incredibly funny.
The Bennet sisters’ story has, in this adaptation, been streamlined with the removal of unnecessary scenes, characters and sub plots, whose elimination demonstrates the writer’s clear understanding of the book and the elements needed to make his updated version work. And whilst they seem to add little effect to the overall enjoyment of the book, many of these changes are however amusing, such as the pivotal scene where Darcy rejects Elizabeth Bennett, saying she is not good enough to tempt him on to the dance floor. Instead of smiling and whispering to Charlotte Lucas as she does in the Austen version, Elizabeth moves swiftly to draw her concealed dagger at Darcy and is distracted only by the arrival of Zombies.
If you are familiar with Austen’s novel then you soon see that Grahame-Smith is faithful to her structure, with a vast amount of the original text remaining in place, and with the ‘Unmentionables’ woven into those familiar scenes that many of us know and love.
Depending on your experience with Pride and Prejudice, this variation of the romance classic will create differing reactions in its readers. If, like me, you have certain scenes scorched within your heart and soul, courtesy of the BBC’s adaptation back in 1995, with Colin Firth bringing Mr Darcy to life in the most dashing of ways, then there is a sense of not wanting that to be trampled on. However, there is tremendous enjoyment to be had in imagining the added dimension of these main characters battling, not only with the social culture and each others’ prejudices, but now also with the addition of the Undead.
However, for readers who have never have had the least inclination to read a Jane Austen novel, this will be an introduction to her writing that they may otherwise never have had. Maybe some will be tempted to read the original, allowing them to make the comparison between both texts. Either way, this is a fast paced, humorous read and if it has the added benefit of introducing Austen to a new audience then so much the better.
Having an awareness of both the old and new text allows us to understand where Austen’s version ends and Grahame-Smith’s begins. In most chapters of the novel, it is a transition that feels so seamless you are unaware it even exists. Providing you do not know that Austen’s story held no darkness, violence or scary figures waiting to gorge on the character’s bodies, that is. This feat undoubtedly is a credit to a writer whose masterful use of language allows those characters we already know to develop in previously unimaginable ways. Unfortunately, and particularly noticeable in the later chapters, there seems to be a shift in the humour, which begins to feels forced and overplayed and therefore stands out, sadly at times making those boundaries between both authors become visible.
What was disappointing was that the Zombie storyline never develops further than the threat of the ‘Unmentionables’, who are waiting for them outside as they travel.
Once the scene has been set and we understand that this is the new way of the world, there is an expectation that we will begin to see this story develop and unfold. We imagine that we are building up towards a big battle in which the Zombies will be overcome. Instead, the remainder of the book continues on with the same theme of the classic Pride and Prejudice, with a few minor changes, a heavy reliance on violence and with only the continued threat of being stricken by the Zombies. There is no battle, no explanation and no outcome other than of the romantic kind. Sadly, in this version and having being tempted with so much more, this is no longer enough.
By the end of the book, which feels a relief to get to, the zombies are a novelty that has worn off, and the joke becomes more tiresome than funny. There is a heavy sense of wasted potential, and whilst the book is a good read, and is funny, it could have been so much more.