Contributed by Christina Morin
About a third of my way through Seth Grahame-Smith’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – I enthusiastically posted my approval on Facebook. To my surprise, a friend and colleague replied, registering her distaste and disappointment, having just finished the book herself. So much could have been done with this, she complained, but what little was done with it was disappointing. I staunchly defended the book, a bit prematurely considering I hadn’t even gotten half way through: it’s just a bit of fun, I argued, and it really was, for a while. Up until that point, I essentially agreed with Stephanie Merritt who, in her review of the novel earlier this month in The Guardian (6 December 2009), applauded the novel’s seamless merging of old (i.e. original text) and new (i.e. zombies): ‘The success of any pastiche lies in its ability to capture the tone of that original, and in this Grahame-Smith has succeeded admirably. By inserting his zombie battles into Austen’s text in appropriate style, the structure and the bulk of the book’s contents remain hers’.
By the time I finished the novel, however, I had my doubts. Overall, I felt that Grahame-Smith achieved an admirable feat in the way he managed to merge his insertions of ‘ultraviolent zombie mayhem’ into Austen’s original text as well as its social and cultural contexts. But his reverence for the latter faltered on several notable occasions, most of them involving adolescent and puerile humour concerned with Mr. Darcy’s genitalia. If I sound a bit prudish here, you’ll have to excuse me. This is, after all, Austen we’re talking about. Her novels are all about the contrast of sense and sensibility – characters like Lizzie and Jane, who have sense, and those, like Mrs. Bennet and Lydia, who are too frequently led astray by their sensibility, most often into sexual indiscretions (in Austen’s world, sensibility connoted feeling. If you were overly sensible, you suffered from an excess of emotion, an illness that was often seen to affect female readers of the Gothic novel, supposedly disposing them to commit unspeakable breaches of patriarchal order.)
When characters of sense – as I always assumed Darcy and Lizzie to be, despite their respective personal flaws – smirked and blushed at each other like 12-year old schoolboys over the word ‘balls’, I could only roll my eyes at the absurdity of it all. From Austen’s perspective, Darcy and Lizzy are supposed specifically to counteract the kind of sexual immorality into which Lydia is led by her lack of sense. Here, however, they indulge in exactly the same kind of silliness for which Lydia is subtly condemned in Austen’s original.
Mr. Bennet, for instance, takes several mistresses to his bed whilst accompanying his daughters on their training trips in China, but, while Elizabeth registers some slight disapproval, Mr. Bennet never suffers any consequences from his indiscretions. Such thoughtlessly inserted, sexed-up situations apparently meant to appeal to a 21st century audience obsessed with sex reminded me of the recent film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Kiera Knightly. In the dvd of the film, an extra ending shows Knightly as Lizzie wearing only Darcy’s shirt and stroking his leg in an evident display of post-coital affection. Austen would never have approved!
Again, I find myself sounding a bit prudish, but let’s be clear here. Austen may have found the humour in turning her charming if somewhat unlucky heroines into hardened zombie warriors. She may have seen the comic justice in pairing the fat, lazy, and self-satisfied Mr. Collins with a soon-to-be zombie. She may even have laughed at the irony of her supposed production of, or at least assistance with a Gothic/horror novel, in light of her fantastic parody of the form in Northanger Abbey. But I’m almost certain she would have turned in her grave – if not wished herself a zombie so that she could personally crack the skull and suck the brains of her hapless co-author – at the thought of rampant sexual indiscretions and jests about Mr. Darcy’s nether regions. The addition of zombies was titillation enough without the repeated insertion of childish humour directly counter to Austen’s original didactic intent.