Mr Darcy, Regency ninjas and the undead. What's not to like?
|Steady, ladies... (Image: Screen Gems)|
There’s something really appealing about taking (out of copyright) respectable, literary classics – Little Women, Anna Kareina et al – and adding fantasy elements like werewolves and vampires. The book that apparently started this craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen with additional text by Seth Grahame-Smith, came out in 2009. Since then it’s become a graphic novel – the natural form for it, I’d say – but was beaten to the inevitable live action version by the film adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s follow up novel, 2010’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). It saw a step forward in the of the ‘mashup’ genre, as it was presented as the fictional diary of the 16th President of America’s battle against vampires, conducted against the background of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Sadly, the film wasn’t as much fun as that description makes it sound. Time Magazine had a very good point when they said in their review of the novel, ‘neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out.’ That’s why the film of the premier novel of genre mashup is much more successful. The idea of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, her sisters and Mr Darcy, now ninja-style warriors, conducting their drama of social manners in a Regency England overrun by brain-eating zombies, is so triumphantly ridiculous – and fun – that it would take an extremely bad director to cock it up.
Burr Steers’ film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is mostly great fun. It’s at its best when it mixes pure Austen with the new scenario, such as in the famous scene where Fitzwilliam Darcy (an impressively repressed Sam Riley) and Lizzie (Lily James, the very definition of well-bred but feisty) confront each other. This time their argument is accompanied by giving each other a kicking and wrecking a vicarage. The contrast between the two genres also works particularly well in the scene where a ballroom dance, lit with the same painterly care and attention to detail as anything in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), abruptly gives way to a zombie attack and the Bennets slash, cartwheel, kick and slice as well as anyone in The Walking Dead.
You can tell all the actors are really into the mashup idea – Riley and James particularly – with John Huston making a superb job of the caddish Mr Wickham, his social villainy in the original novel given a new slant as he becomes the leader of the undead. Proving there is indeed life after Doctor Who, Matt Smith is genuinely funny in quite a grim film as Parson Collins, the effete and unworldly-wise husband of Lizzie’s sister Charlotte (Aisling Loftus). In fact, I haven’t enjoyed such a vibrant display of classical, British ensemble thesping for a quite a while.
Which is just as well, as when the film doesn’t work, as with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter you feel like you’re waiting for a punchline that never arrives. The idea of doing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a film in the first place might be the problem: there’s so much potential in the vision of an 18th century England where young ladies train to be warriors in China and Japan, London is surrounded by a huge canal to keep the zombies out and the undead are a metaphor for the working class, that a TV series is just crying out to be made.
The idea of broadening out different, but overlapping, fictional universes into a television format has been taken up by the makers of the horror fantasy Penny Dreadful (2014 - ) with some success. In the London of Jack the Ripper, Dr Frankenstein and his monsters, Dorian Gray and Dracula’s Mina Harker co-exist with vampires, werewolves and new characters, and their stories all interweave beautifully. Some people might think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies too one-joke to work in the same way, but since the original mashup novel was written, we’ve had the BBC’s series Dickensian (2015-16), which is essentially the Charles Dickens version of Penny Dreadful. Why not open up Grahame-Smith’s Regency zombie land to characters from Austen’s Emma, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey? It could work.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the film adaptations of Little Vampire Women and Android Karenina.