By Natalie Alper-Leroux
Like the contagion in a zombie’s bite, the damage done to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by outdated action stereotypes doesn’t manifest until it is too late. This adaptation, directed by Burr Steers, of the Zac Efron vehicles 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud, is once removed from the Seth Grahame-Greene mash-up based on the Jane Austen novel. It initially revels in the abrupt shifts in tone that its outlandish premise makes possible: in the film’s opening, the famously eccentric zombie hunter Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley) dismisses Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) as “tolerable”, but changes his tune after watching her dispatch a horde of the undead in the middle of that evening’s village ball. Unfortunately, gleeful whiplash soon gives way to a string of darkly brooding, blood-drenched action set-pieces which, while engaging, does little to set itself apart from the dark, gritty reboots that fill movie theaters today.
While PPZ remains faithful to the book’s plot, conventional action film tropes abound and leave their trace on the spirit of the original story and characters. The sisterly bonds which are central to the novel are so underdeveloped that key plot points, like the rescue mission Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Lizzy embark on to save their sister Lydia (Ellie Bamber) from the zombie-infested London suburbs, seem like half-hearted obligations to the characters and contrived devices to move the story along. The absence of chemistry between Jack Huston’s dead-eyed Wickham and Lizzy, or even future abductee Lydia, bleeds the novel’s romantic tension bone-dry and takes the sting out of the film’s biggest plot twist.
Perhaps more insidiously, PPZ takes a story about and for women, and tacks on a host of tired tropes in an effort to make a male action movie audience comfortable. This manifests as clearly in the film’s pre-ball montage, in which the Bennet sisters lace up corsets, pin up curls, and strap knives onto every inch of stockinged legs, as in Lizzy Bennet’s emotionally stunted “action girl” persona and Lena Headey’s magnificently campy portrayal of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as an eyepatch-clad warrior aristocrat. In the most significant deviation from Pride and Prejudice, it is Darcy, rather than Lizzy and the Bennet family, who becomes the first character the audience meets; this creative decision implicitly prioritizes Darcy’s narrative arc over that of both novels’ actual protagonist, and makes apparent who the audience should be following on through dystopian England.
Although the film barely passes Alison Bechdel’s test for female characters in movies (two named characters who talk to each other about something other than a man), reliance on “strong female character” archetyping hollows out the source material’s rich characters and makes them two-dimensional props in their own story. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes off as another comic-book reinterpretation, complete with an exposition montage in marionette-like animation, which fails to do much to acknowledge the audience that made the original work a success.