Wednesday, October 14, 2009

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) is Seth Grahame-Smith’s reworking of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice (1813). Here, Grahame-Smith has retained the original story but has populated Austen’s world with the living dead, and has turned all the characters into ninjas. It would be good for me to point out here that I’m not a huge Austen fan, although I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, and that I do tend to enjoy the zombie genre. Nevertheless, this book is a complete failure in every way.

Grahame-Smith changes Austen’s famous opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” to, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” If you are that rare sort of person who is older than fifteen and still finds such a thing terribly clever, you might enjoy this book.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is so bad as to spawn innumerable ironic references to the old cliché that Austen is spinning in her grave. And she should be – I would. But is it the concept or the execution? Obviously we aren’t taking this kind of thing seriously, and it’s not like we expect this to be, well, Jane Austen or anything. Grahame-Smith copies and pastes Austen where he can, and apes her style when he can’t. The effect is that we get all of the tiresomeness of Austen minus nearly all her cleverness, plus a heaping helping of Grahame-Smith’s own copious banality. Any fool can take someone else’s work and ham-handedly sprinkle random references to “the deadly arts” and “the sorry stricken” (not to mention kindergarten-age bathroom “humor”) all through it – but it doesn’t make it entertaining. The Austen fan may often feel, and rightly so, that Grahame-Smith just doesn’t “get” the original novel, which might not have been such a problem if the book had been the slightest bit funny, which it most certainly is not. And why are we capitalizing “katana” every time?

Much could be forgiven if the zombie mayhem was good zombie mayhem, or even mayhem of any kind. But the zombies are uninspired – they’re just there, popping up to be slaughtered from time to time for no reason other than that, after all, this is a zombie book. None of the zombie combat is particularly interesting either.

None of this necessarily means that two such disparate genres as zombie horror and eighteenth-century romance cannot be successfully combined (although it does seem unlikely as long as one’s target audience is adult). But that certainly is not the case here – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fails utterly on every front. Spin, Jane, spin.


Monday, October 12, 2009


It is beneficial at times to step away from our classics of literature, to take them down from their high pedestals and look at them without pretension. No novel, no matter how well-regarded, is universally esteemed – Twain, Emerson, and Charlotte Bronte all savaged Pride and Prejudice in print – so let us, for a few moments, stop treating it as holy writ and just look at it as a novel, at how it holds up to a modern casual reader.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is Jane Austen’s novel of manners – it thoroughly explores the ins, outs and economics of nineteenth-century courtship. The novel’s central character is Elizabeth Bennet, one of five daughters, whose family lives in a country village. Two wealthy, eligible bachelors move to town, and romance, confusion and animosity ensue.

Austen populates her novel with all manner of flawed characters. Many of them are annoying – that is, they behave badly and are antagonistic toward the main characters – but they all show at least some depth. No one here is without flaw, but no one here is without virtue, either (except Mr. Collins, the most ludicrous of them all). And this is why the novel works: because Austen treats her characters and their social milieu gently, delicately (well, except Mr. Collins). If she had done otherwise, if she had been more cutting, she would have lost the sympathy in the reader that many of these characters engender.

To the modern audience, Austen’s plotting is rather sluggish, although it must be recalled that novels moved at a rather more leisurely pace then. At any rate it often seems that there is one too many side plots, or perhaps one too many visits to relatives, and there are patches that can be quite hard to get through. But you don’t go to Austen for plot – you go to her for clever dialogue, for a delightful turn of phrase. That is what she thrives at, and that is what she is best remembered for. And in spite of the novel’s overlength, Austen delivers a full and completely satisfying payoff. Rarely is a happy ending so fulfilling, and it may not be until the last few pages of the book that it becomes evident to the reader how masterfully Austen has set it up. And this is a large reason why the novel has such enduring appeal.

Much of the nuance in Pride and Prejudice may be lost on casual modern readers. For example, the character of Mrs. Bennet is the object of great scorn from many readers, and this has only been exacerbated by the film adaptations of the novel. But while marrying for love is the norm today, then, it was not; Mrs. Bennet is the only one looking out for the Bennet family’s financial future.

Pride and Prejudice is, on the whole, a satisfactory and clever novel, and, at present, one whose merits are diminished mostly by readers too far removed to understand it in its fullness, or whose tastes have diverged too far.