It is a truth universally acknowledged that a publisher in search of profits must be in want of a most marketable text. Indeed, if one were to maximise the margins, one could do no better than prey on a much-loved and globally recognised testament of the Western Canon.
And that is how Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Classics, 2009) came to be. At the suggestion of an editor, Grahame-Smith hacked his way through Austen’s most popular text, inserting zombie action into the storyline and rewriting Austen’s characters to deal with these new plot twists. Zombies are the living dead, the walking corpses that wander roboticly in search of the living, on whose brains they feed after cracking open their skulls. Zombiism is an infectious state transmitted through biting, as we learn when Charlotte Lucas confides in Elizabeth Bennet that she has been bitten by a zombie and therefore, as her days are numbered, she will marry Mr Collins because he can fulfil her modest expectations of the marital state and give her a proper beheading and Christian burial after her transformation into a zombie is complete. Charlotte’s descent into decomposing housewife oozing pus and talking in what sounds like Sambo-speak, awh mah lawd, it do make me laff.
In Grahame-Smith’s version of Austen’s England, the country is in the throes of a zombie plague and as zombies can only be dispatched by beheadings, their violent destruction is the responsibility of the military but citizens with a serious interest in survival also require deadly fighting skills because they might be needed as zombies are likely to gatecrash balls, eat the kitchen staff of a grand estate as they prepare to serve desert, which is ruined by the bloody splatter, and interrupt just about any genteel activity found in an Austen novel. So, Grahame-Smith’s Bennet sisters are Shaolin-trained warriors, Wickham, D’Arcy and Lady Catherine de Burgh are initiates of the Japanese fighting arts and the zombies are just freestyle cannibals, giving everyone ample opportunity for frequent, lethal encounters and buckets of yuckky viscera.
But I’m making the work sound a lot better than it reads. While blood, gore and guts, with a supernatural twist – staple fodder of late 20thC youth entertainment – have been added by the hospital biohazard skipful, Grahame-Smith does a poor job of marrying his contribution to Austen’s archaic, and by modern standards of informality, delightfully pompous language.
Clearly, the popularity enjoyed by Pride and Prejudice in recent years has more to do with its treatment on screen than Austen’s skill with language. Filmed versions of the book have abounded, most notably the BBC’s 1995 TV production with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the leads, capturing the essence of Austen’s opus in 6 easy episodes without anyone but writer Andrew Davies, an award-winning screen adaptor of classic novels, having to read a word of the novel. Nevertheless, Austen, as the teller of the story, is given full credit for her creation, which is, more or less, a love story for teenagers, featuring a number of mateable virgins and their suitors, an assortment of problematic relatives, and throbbing with unresolved sexual tension more volatile than an industrial accident in a pharmaceutical laboratory manufacturing hormones for the treatment of flagging libidos.
The virgins cover all types: sexy and sweet (Jane), sexy and sharp (Elizabeth), sexy, buxom and bawdy (Lydia), sexy and silly (Kitty), sexy and juvenile (Miss D’Arcy), sexless and intellectual (Mary), sexless and dowdy (Charlotte), sexless and sickly (Miss de Bourgh), and last but not least that great archetype, sexless and shrewish (Miss Bingley). Zip up your pants, boys! Speaking of which, the bachelors offer varying degrees of eligibility, covering the 19thC desirable job wishlist. Among them we have the landed gentry in D’Arcy, the fantastically rich, impossibly handsome and scandalously arrogant alpha male/bad boy, and his friend, Bingley, a beagle reincarnated as a good-natured, rich, upper class twit; the clergy in Mr Collins, a drivelling slimeball, next to whom it is agony to sit let alone contemplate physical contact with; and, of course, the military in Wickham, the mendacious reprobate slipping as easily into virgins’ confidence as into their vaginas, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is without any glaring faults apart from being “a younger son” whose consequent lack of fortune prevents him from marrying where he might like. But Austen does not spoil everyone’s fun by dwelling too long on anything remotely serious here; she saves that for Persuasion.
The relatives are as easily dispatched as zombies milling on a busy helicopter landing pad. Mrs Bennet who talks too much and thinks too little is a constant embarrassment to her children. Mr Bennet, who speaks in cutting sarcasms, spends all his time hiding in his library. Best of all is Lady Catherine de Burgh, the aunt from hell who proves that social status, riches and genetic pedigree are no guarantee of good breeding, personal quality and effectualness.
When you take a close look at Austen’s story and characters there are many ways to improve on it and Seth Grahame-Smith tries his best to fix it.
Aside from the poetic treatment of Charlotte and giving Lady Catherine a troupe of ninjas, Grahame-Smith disappoints.
His feeling for Asian martial arts is as fake as Charlotte Collins’s orgasms would have been. The Bennets are Shaolin (Temple in China) Chinese boxing followers so they would never set foot in dojos (Japanese karate training halls) except to vanquish a karate opponent (see – literally – Fist of Fury, 1972, Lo Wei). Elizabeth Bennet would never use a Katana – a Samurai sword – when she could use a dragon pole, which would give her better reach until she could get in with her butterfly swords, one for each hand, spun in continuous figure 8 motion, dismembering anything in reach. If Grahame-Smith tackled a religious subject he would have a Methodist minister say Mass in a mosque. A little bit of credibility, please.
The reworked novel’s conclusion is more horrifying than any zombie-wreaked havoc: “the sisters Bennet – servants of His Majesty, protectors of Hertfordshire, beholders of the secrets of Shaolin, and brides of death – were now, three of them, brides of man, their swords quieted by that only force more powerful than any warrior.” It’s not just the secrets of Shaolin about which Seth doesn’t have a clue.
But it is Grahame-Smith’s crime against language that is heinous beyond censure. It includes Mr Bennet referring to his wife as a “silly woman” and other lazy modernisms where period detailing of form and content may have been vastly more amusing and indeed the very palliative to make so odd a concoction as Mr Grahame-Smith’s endeavour bearable for those with highly-attuned cultural sensitivities. Worst of all, it features the mutilation of a pronoun, “…as for my sisters and I, our father thought it best that we give less of our time to books…”(p34). Here Seth is not alone and a plague of this is upon “us”, that’s “you and me”, babe, not YOU AND I! A plague is upon me and upon you but you will still be you whether you are the subject or the object, whereas I will be me when I am the object. Why do you do this to us, the other readers and me? On the back cover blurb of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it states, “Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature” so, he can consider this his class in English language.
Seth, all I can say is,”You have offended me, my (literary/literate)family and the Shaolin Temple.” Well done, old chap!
Blazenka Brysha took many classes in English literature and language, on both sides of the desk. She devours books with all the greedy, lip-smacking relish of a zombie cracking open a toddler’s soft skull and sucking out the warm brain, which is probably why her daughter gave her a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a birthday gift.
Also published in The Group Online Magazine, Issue 5.