Since the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Jane Austen has given us many things. From Colin Firth emerging wet shirt-clad out of a lake in the iconic BBC series, to that hand scene in the 2005 film version with Kiera Knightley and Matthew Mcfayden, we owe Austen our unrealistic relationship standards and hopeless romantic way of life. However, I don’t think Austen could’ve predicted that P+P but with zombies (?!) would be another one of her contributions to modern society.
Starring Lily James and Sam Riley, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016), as much as it was ignored at the time of its release, holds a special place in my heart as a self-proclaimed Jane Austen superfan who owns eight different editions of P+P (including the book of the same name that the film is based on). What is a nightmare for English teachers everywhere remains to this day my secret obsession and, in my opinion, one of the most radical pieces of feminist media.
Of course, I wouldn’t say that PPZ is the perfect film. When I re-watched it recently, it became clear to me just how fast-paced it felt at the expense of crucial plot points and longer interactions between characters. In comparison to Austen’s original novel and previous adaptations, the scenes here ended abruptly, plot lines were rushed to reach the end, and some moments didn’t quite fit into the new zombie apocalypse mold.
Look at how the film includes plot points like Lady Catherine confronting Elizabeth about her supposed engagement to Mr. Darcy and, later, Wickham kidnapping Lydia. In the source material, both garner reactions that are hugely indicative of the time period and negatively impact the Bennett’s social standing. But with so much going on zombie-wise, neither are relevant or consequential but are instead distracting.
And still I love this film. The violence and gore contrasted with sarcasm and romance, the characters’ ironic need for influential social standing even in the midst of an apocolyptic war, the loud feminist overtones in every scene with Elizabeth and her sisters—it all works together to create a true masterpiece of a story that not even Austen herself could’ve imagined.
Especially with the incorporation of weaponry and fight scenes throughout, everything in the film becomes elevated and increased in intensity, especially its take on feminism. We see the Bennett sisters casually cleaning their rifles in the study, tucking knives into their boots and garters, practicing hand-to-hand combat as they argue about sisterly issues, single-handedly defeating a horde of zombies who invade the first ball of the film. Even their father Mr. Bennett dryly asserts that he raised “his daughters for battle, not the kitchen.”
It’s not just that the girls are handed weapons and left to start violence the way men do. They retain their femininity in strong and powerful ways through the clothing they wear, going to dances, and engaging in sisterly affection. For women, zombie killing is not an accidental occupation but a way for them to resist patriarchal expectations, carve out individual identities, and protect themselves and the people they love.
In the last battle scene, it’s Elizabeth and Jane who save their soon-to-be husbands from certain death by zombie attack rather than pigeon-holing themselves into the “damsel in distress” role. It’s Elizabeth who makes the conscious effort to hold onto her independence and refuses to “give up her sword for a ring” as she’s expected to, according to the traditional rites of marriage.
Speaking of which, let’s not forget the scene where Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth for the first time. Whereas their argument was merely at first a battle of spoken words, PPZ takes it a step further by actually igniting physical combat between the two. Both trained fighters, they break tables and chairs and vases, throw books, sword fight with pokers, slam each other into walls and doors and pianos. It’s a hilarious (and dare I say, sexy?) scene that brings Austen’s material to extraordinary heights, which carries to the rest of the film as well.
While it’s not the best adaptation of the now-iconic story, PPZ is arguably the most radical and original, and deserved far more praise than what it first received. Lily James is perfect in her role as Elizabeth and her chemistry with Sam Riley is both deserved and addictive to watch unfold and change on-screen. While I’m sure many Jane Austen purists would disagree, I found that the film honors the original material just as well as the others, if not more, for how much it surprises and makes light satire out of humanity’s darkest hour. If nothing else, it’s a fun film to watch when you want a little of everything and a bit extra: action, romance, and, of course, zombies. (Seriously, who would’ve thought zombies could work so well in the Regency era?)