Adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Writer/director Burr Steers mixes bonnets and the undead
By Richard Whittaker,
6:30PM, Thu. Feb. 4, 2016
Dying is easy, as the saying goes, but comedy is hard. So what about jokes about the undead? Writer/director Burr Steers had a simple rule when adapting Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He said, "Play it straight. We would create this alternate Regency world where the zombie invasion had happened."
Graham-Smith's pastiche takes Jane Austen's tale of ego, arrogance, misperception, and romance in 19th century England, and puts the story against a grisly background. Before the book's events, a zombie invasion has overtaken Britain, and the Bennett girls have been raised as gentile dispatchers of the undead.
As the story is a fusion, so were Steer's influences. His approach to gore was shaped by films like 28 Days Later, where zombieism becomes a sociological concern as much as a supernatural threat. He also delved deeply into Richard Matheson's seminal I Am Legend, which he called "something I used as a template, with the zombies retaining some of what they were as humans, and seeing them as a competitive race."
Steer described himself as being drawn to monsters as metaphors (for example, he said, "Vampire movies coming back into vogue during the AIDS epidemic"). The recent success of zombies is seemingly the antithesis of that, since he sees the genre as being driven by video games. "The number one thing teenagers want to destroy is other people, and zombies are the closest thing to that." However, for his own script he emphasized the idea that these intelligent brain-eaters are more than just cannon fodder. "You're not out of the reach of something very dangerous."
With the zombies in place, his energies returned to the Pride and Prejudice side. Steers said, "For me, it was reinterpreting Jane Austen." His job was to create a convincing re-creation of Regency England if filtered through the funeral weeds of the revenant (the opening credits even spoof the era's leading caricaturist and satirist, James Gillray). It helped that the original book is one of the most recognizable, widely read, and beloved novels of all time. Steers wrote his script with "the realization that Jane Austen still works as we're going into Bridget Jones 19," and he was able to take some influence from the 11 (and counting) TV and film versions of Austen's original. He said, "The adaptations were very different but incredibly helpful, because someone's cracked the book."
The Regency influence also dictated how far the movie could push the gore. While there are mass hordes of flesh-eaters rampaging across England's green and pleasant lands, Steers tipped his hat more to Polanski than Fulci. He said, "I could have been more overtly gory, but there's also the philosophy that seeing something graphically is reductive."
The original book derives much of its spark from the spiky and unlikely romance between Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James, Cinderella, Downton Abbey) and Darcy (Sam Riley, Control). Yet much of its comedy comes from the man who mistakenly believes this is a love triangle, and he's the third corner: the inept, bumptious, unctuous Mr. Collins (or, as he keeps reminding everyone, Parson Collins). Steers said, "There's a shadow cast by the string of incredibly good comedic actors that have played Collins in the past."
So his challenge was in finding a new Mr. (sorry, Parson) Collins, and fortunately he found the perfect man out of time: former Doctor Who Matt Smith. "He's just so blatantly talented that you just try to get him into your movie," Steers said. "I don't know any young actor with his physical ability. You could do a silent movie with him in it."
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is on release now. For review and screening times, visit our listings page.