“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” It’s not every literary DJ who would want to remix one of the most beloved opening sentences in English literature, Pride and Prejudice’s exquisite phrasing about the common notion that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Especially since Seth Grahame-Smith’s surprisingly graceful mash-up of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel and George Romero’s equally classic (in its own peculiar way) 1968 zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, does retain some 85 per cent of Austen’s original text. But the author was working in an already crowded field, and he had a certain tone—both literary and absurdist—to set right off the top.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, indeed, only the latest, if goriest, take on the most adapted novel in history. There are nine more or less straight-up film and TV versions of Austen’s corrosively funny tale of marriage, money and the five Bennet girls. That’s before mentioning Bridget Jones’s Diary or Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice. Or the entire fictional sub-genre of unhappy modern women obsessing over Austen’s orderly society in rural England. Depending on the level of fantasy involved, the women in those stories can play out their dreams in an Austen-esque way or actually end up in Austen-era England. And in one four-hour BBC production, Lost in Austen (2008), a 21st-century Londoner switches places with Elizabeth Bennet—an Austen character—meaning she gets to do what she really wants: wreak romantic havoc in the world of Pride and Prejudice. Clearly, Austen’s novel still resonates with women.
Did Grahame-Smith think a little blood and action might attract men? “I hope the addition of zombies, ninjas and vomit will bring more male readers to the Austenverse,” says the 32-year-old L.A. writer. That wasn’t the aim, though. He didn’t actually have an aim, just a title—which ended up sticking to the project like a blood splatter on Regency wallpaper—and a six-week deadline. “My friend Jason Rekulak, who’s an editor, had been wanting to do a mash-up for years. He was always making lists in columns—classics like War and Peace or Wuthering Heights on one side, and the schlocky genres, horror, pulp mystery, on the other. And he’d draw lines between them. A year ago he phoned me, all excited: ‘I got it! Listen—Pride and Prejudice with zombies!’ ”
Horror fans have so far proved harder to please than Austenites. Writer Cory Doctorow thinks there isn’t enough brain-eating: “Too much Austen, and not enough zombies,” he succinctly concluded. (That may not augur well for Grahame-Smith’s two contracted sequels, starting with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) Not everyone is charmed on the other side either: “Eighty-five per cent Austen, 15 per cent a television writer named Seth Grahame-Smith, and 100 per cent terrible,” huffed The New Yorker. But many an Austen devotee is willing to give it a chance, now that critics recognize the viciously funny mean streak in an author once thought meek and mild. “Austen’s novels are sort of acid baths” for the characters, says one admirer. So why shouldn’t Lizzy Bennet, that independent woman with a sharp tongue, become an independent woman with a sharp blade?
Grahame-Smith helps his cause too, by skillful mimicry of Austen’s style and the seamless way he adds his input. The imperious Darcy, for instance, is at first approved of by all who meet him: “His fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report, which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having 10,000 a year.” Or so Austen had it. Grahame-Smith is with her right up to the last clause, which he renders, “of his having slaughtered more than 1,000 unmentionables since the fall of Cambridge.” Respect for Austen’s hallowed text is followed through to the end. “All the right couples end up together,” the author says reassuringly, before adding, with evident relish, “but the wicked are punished much more severely than in the original.”
In fact, Grahame-Smith’s book may seem quaint after Michael Thomas Ford’s novel, Jane Bites Back, arrives in 2010. In it Austen turns into a vampire who spends her immortal life running a bookshop until, crazed with rage over all the writers and publishers coining money off her work, she starts driving stakes through their hearts. After that, there will be nowhere to go but to the bitter end: a story pitting Jane Austen against her own creation, Lizzy Bennett, stake versus sword.