Published in 2009, P&P&Z was a huge hit. It emerged seemingly fully-formed from the head of Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak, who was comparing a list of then-current internet lolrandom words – “ninja”, “zombie”, “pirate”, etc. – with a list of famous public domain properties. P&P&Z is a brilliant title, no doubt, so when Rekulak stumbled upon it, he contacted Seth Grahame-Smith, a Quirk author who’d previously written a few lightly comedic books and comic tie-ins. G-S loved the idea, and realised the potential of the story – there’s a garrison of soldiers in the book for no reason, lots of to-ing and fro-ing to various stately homes, conversations where they could be fighting at the same time as talking, and so on.
And the book is great! It works surprisingly well, with the combination of Mrs Bennet wanting to sell her daughters off to wealthy suitors, and Mr Bennet wanting them to become the best fighters; and the subtext of the girls’ blossoming sexuality being replaced with…well, zombies. It was a surprisingly huge hit, spawning a prequel, a sequel, and a cottage industry of classic literature mashups (“Jane Slay’re”, “Sense And Sensibility And Sea-Monsters”, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, and probably others that have mercifully slipped into obscurity). While Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires, also written by Grahame-Smith, was turned into a well-regarded movie (that I didn’t care for), the rest of them were pretty rubbish, lightning being unable to be captured in a bottle twice, and so on.
Obviously, talk of a movie started as soon as the size of the publishing frenzy became apparent, and what’s fascinating is how many huge names were at one point attached to it. Natalie Portman’s name is still there as producer, but she was also going to star originally, and David O Russell was to direct. After they left, many directors and writers were hired only to leave due to scheduling conflicts, until eventually we get to 2016 and Burr Steers, director of a couple of Zac Efron movies five years ago (as well as being Gore Vidal’s nephew), who ended up both writing and directing. He apparently put some “Pride and Prejudice” back into the script, which leaves me wondering how little was in the one he was handed.
The only problem with all this delay is that by 2016 the literary mashup bubble had very definitely burst. If new books in this vein are still being written, they’re either in the realm of fan-fiction or so obscure that I’m yet to hear of them, so the huge amount of free publicity that would have come from a release near when it was first announced was lost, and there was a vague air of “they’re still making that? Really?” in the press it did get. While not quite as embarrassing as releasing an “Angry Birds” movie in 2016, it’s still pretty bad.
An indication of how far down the studio’s importance scale P&P&Z had fallen is the level of acting talent they got. David O Russell and Natalie Portman would have filled the cast with stars, one feels, but the biggest names in this are the supporting cast – Charles Dance as Mr Bennet, Lena Headey as Lady Catherine, and Matt Smith as Mr Collins; none of which you’d exactly call box office draws. The Bennet sisters are all very good, though, especially Lily James as Lizzie; and the cast is packed with people who could all do fine turns in straight Austen adaptations (and some top comedians, such as Sally Phillips as Mrs Bennet).
I’ve not even got to the plot yet, but if you’re alive in 2016, reading this and aren’t even a little aware of what P&P is all about, then I worry for you. The Bennet sisters are living on the poor edge of country society, so when the handsome, charming, single Mr Bingley moves into a nearby mansion, Mrs Bennet sees the opportunity to get one of her daughters married into money. Bingley and eldest daughter Jane hit it off immediately, but Bingley has an old friend, Mr Darcy, who just immediately antagonises Lizzie, and seems to have something to do with Bingley’s rapid departure from town. Plus, he hates the handsome and dashing Mr Wickham, who begins romancing Lizzie.
From all this, a classic novel grows. The movie manages to keep most of the major beats of the story intact (well, very broad brush strokes and all that), but has every social event, ride to a country house, and conversation interrupted by zombies. There’s also the story of how London has become completely overtaken, and how Darcy, Wickham, Bingley and the other soldiers deal with them. The story of Darcy and Lizzie is one of the great romances in all of literature, and it’s difficult to mess up, so they don’t, even adding zombie rescue to the courtship, which sort-of improves it.
I know it’s sort of stupid claiming any status for a mashup novel intended for a quick laugh, but the movie treats it more as a name than as anything to copy, particularly. The domination of London by the undead is mentioned in passing in the book, but becomes a major part of the movie – if I had to guess, I’d say it was someone with money suggesting it needed a bigger climax than a conversation and a kiss. In fact, that attitude shines through regularly, that people couldn’t possibly be interested in the original story with zombies in it, but needed SPECTACLE!
This is shown best by the way the movie, quite a lot of fun to this point, completely screws the ending up. Grahame-Smith keeps most of the ending of the novel intact, in spirit, with Wickham getting his just desserts, younger sister Lydia revealing an unknown strength of character, Mr Collins having a tragic end, and so on. Love conquers all, across class boundaries, with Darcy not asking Lizzie to change a thing about her athletic, zombie-killing ways. But the movie inserts the Four Horsemen Of The Undead Apocalypse, turns Wickham from monster into Monster, features an explosion-laden climax and then gives us a post-credits coda which completely ruins the last 2 hours.
As much as I enjoyed it on a (pardon the pun) mindless level, it really doesn’t bear up to the mildest scrutiny. They ignore enough of the original story to be irritating, and seem to think the joke of beautiful refined society ladies talking about (or fighting) zombies is enough to get you through. I don’t think director Burr Steers was the right choice for the movie, either. You’ve got three basic elements – romance, horror and comedy – and a more capable director would’ve worked out which order he wanted the three in, or just which to emphasise in which scene. But it all ends up a bit of a mess. And to ignore both the original source and the mashup source to bolt on a stupid horror movie “all our struggles were for nothing” ending is really dumb. I always think of “Clerks” at times like this, and how Kevin Smith was persuaded to replace his original, terrible ending, and how leaving it how it was wouldn’t really have changed too much of the movie but would’ve cast a pall over the memory of it, probably greatly changing the course of his career. Someone should have told Burr Steers to change his damn ending (or he should have fought whoever suggested it), and I can’t help but feel this limply received movie will do no favours for him.
Rating: thumbs in the middle