English lit for the undead

When I read Pride and Prejudice in high school, a close friend mentioned that it was missing a few things—mainly explosions and high-powered weaponry. Apparently, Seth Grahame-Smith thought the classic novel was also in need of a higher body count.

In his book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, “co-written” by Jane Austen, Grahame-Smith takes the widely beloved (and just as widely mocked) novel Pride and Prejudice and modifies it so that the story takes place in an alternate England run amok with brain-eating undead known as “unmentionables.”

As in the classic, the tale follows Elizabeth Bennet (trained in the deadly arts by her beloved Master Liu) and her sisters in English country lives dictated by strict social codes and engaged in constant combat with the undead. Elizabeth, who is more interested in becoming “Death’s Bride” than being a bride herself, meets the wealthy, deadly but proud Mr. Darcy. Eventually, these two assassins fall in love, breaking social taboos and slaughtering zombies along the way.

But true Austenophiles need not worry; the essence of the original novel is still there, and Grahame-Smith is able to keep up a semblance of Austen’s style throughout even the most ridiculous zombie fights.

And there are plenty of zombie fights, especially during the tedious carriage rides and balls found in the original story.

“The creature advanced and Elizabeth landed a devastating chop across its thigh. The limb broke off, and the unmentionable fell to the ground, helpless. She retrieved a dagger and beheaded the last of her opponents, lifting its head by the hair and letting her battle cry be known for a mile in every direction,” reads one passage.

But Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is more than simply inserting zombies, battles to the death and the occasional act of cannibalism. Grahame-Smith also trims the excess from the original narrative. No longer does the reader have to wade through several paragraphs in order to find out Mr. Collins is a fat, bumbling idiot. The author tells you right off the bat.

Grahame-Smith does, however, take liberties with the original characters, modifying their personalities and even adjusting their eventual fates to adapt to the added zombie element. Unfortunately, not all characters reach the denouement unscathed; some do succumb to the zombie curse. Still, this might be a better fate than some of the bad marriages of the original novel.

And, while it’s an intriguing concept, ultimately the book is a clumsy parody of the classic. There’s just no way to construct a smooth transition from the romantic tale of manners and a sci-fi horror novel. It’s difficult to savor Austen’s original emotional drama while the characters are busy eating still-beating hearts of ninjas.

At the same time, beheading the undead isn’t as mindlessly enjoyable while Elizabeth is simultaneously trying to reason out Mr. Darcy’s true intentions. One must either surrender to social machinations or to gory goodness; there’s not much middle ground.

That’s not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable book, in the way that watching a bad B movie or reading Mad magazine is funny. But it just doesn’t hold up over the long haul; all the fun is in the concept.

And really, it is far-fetched. Not so much the idea of zombies running rampant through 18th-century London, perhaps, but certainly the idea of an unconnected woman with no dowry finding true love, and with a rich, handsome and good-hearted suitor.