I’m really the wrong person to say anything about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, since I am not a fan of zombie stories to begin with, but having a fondness for Jane Austen I went to the movie hoping for something entertaining. I was not entirely disappointed, but something about the movie bothers me.
It’s not just that it feels like a joke that has gone on too long without getting to a punchline. It is Pride and Prejudice with zombies added, exactly as advertised. The confined and unvarying quality of the movie is a feature, not a bug, and I can live with that. What bothers me about it is what it does to Austen’s characters and in particular the female characters.
One of the joys of Austen’s writing is her brilliance in delineating character. With the subtlest of strokes she paints a world full of characters who are at once real and caricatured. Pride and Prejudice in particular offers us an enormous variety of female characters, each with their own personalities. In the Bennet household alone we have flighty Mrs. Bennet, sweet Jane, cynical Lizzie, serious Mary, impressionable Kitty, and silly Lydia. Beyond it are practical Charlotte Lucas, the judgmental Bingley sisters, imperious Lady Catherine, sensitive Georgiana Darcy, and more.
In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, however, all of these different characters are muted into just so many different flavors of martial-arts badass with only half-hearted attempts at characterization. The many subtleties of Austen’s social satire are reduced to snobbery over exactly which martial arts a woman happens to be badass at.
It is not that I am at all opposed to female characters being martial-arts badasses. Rather I am dissatisfied with female characters whose only defining trait is being martial-arts badasses. We have here another case of Strong Female Character syndrome where one generic template serves for all women in the story, as if “strong” is the only trait a female character needs or can handle. Lily James’s Lizze Bennet and Ellie Bamber’s Lydia could trade places and you would hardly notice.
This is particularly galling in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies when the male characters, some of them much less important to the story, have far more definition to their characters. Jack Huston’s slimy Wickham and Douglas Booth’s puppyish Bingley are immediately recognizable. Some of the best scenes in the movie are the zombie-less ones featuring Charles Dance’s dry-as-the-Sahara Mr. Bennet and Matt Smith’s clueless Mr. Collins. Sam Riley’s Darcy may be nothing more than a walking growl and glower in a leather coat—exactly what every all-male focus group thinks women want—but there is no mistaking him for any other character.
For a movie which advertises itself with such overtly feminist claims (these women kick zombie ass instead of toiling in the kitchen!), it is maddening to see the old Hollywood cliches rise from the grave instead: men are people; women are just interchangeable parts.
As a zombie action movie, it is barely tolerable I suppose, but for characterization Pride and Prejudice and Zombies earns a Mr. Bennet facepalm from me.
Updated to fix errors
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.