Toot toot toot my own horn: I’m fairly well read. Not as well read as a lot of people, and certainly not as well read as I’d like to be, but pretty well read. Somehow, though, I’ve never managed to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I read Sense and Sensibility and even Northanger Abbey in college, but somehow missed out on what many claim is Austen’s masterpiece of class relations, romance, and wit.
Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) changed all that. Thanks to that particular best-selling piece of complete crap, I have finally read a book which I should have read a long, long time ago.
I also thank my friend Matt Link, who said he was going to read both books simultaneously - an idea which I promptly copied, rushing out to the bookstore to buy the classic novel as well as the supposedly zombie-infested parody/update. For the last couple of months, I’ve lain in bed at night and read a couple of chapters at a time of Austen’s classic, followed by the corresponding chapters of the zombie version. Yes, it was slow-going: I’m not a slow reader, but slogging through both books (while also reading Bill Willingham’s Fables AND War and Peace) was a bit of a chore - and not because of Austen’s book.
You see, Jane Austen penned a book which more than deserves its revered status as a literary classic - the book transcends time to deliver character-driven humor and romance in a way that those of us writing today would be hard-pressed to emulate and repeat. When you think about it, characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy, Lydia Bennet, Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, William Collins, and Lady Catherine have become archetypes that we all know and anticipate in every comedy and romance we see or read in this modern era. Their situations have become universal. Their circumstances are immediately recognizable and fascinating at the same time. And the book they come from is almost 200 years old!
In contrast, Seth Grahame-Smith’s book came from an idea that Grahame-Smith himself didn’t even HAVE. Instead, the concept of doing a mash-up of zombie horror and a classic book in the public domain came from Quirk Books’s editor Jason Rekulak, who called up Grahame-Smith one day, told him the idea, and then left him to run with it.
Now, it is never my policy to say that so and so sucks as a writer (except for Dan Brown, who does indeed suck as a writer), so I looked into some of Grahame-Smith’s previous works to see if there was anything notably bad there, and there really isn’t. Grahame-Smith is a good writer, in fact, who got presented with an interesting but daunting project and handled it… adequately.
But handling something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies only adequately means that he fell short of achieving something I really wished he’d have achieved - the book jacket claims that he transformed “a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.”
Not even close.
Naturally, as both a writer and a fan of zombie horror, I can’t just make that claim without substantiating it by telling you what I would have done differently - which is to say, here are the places where I feel Grahame-Smith failed.
First of all, he stuck too closely to the original. I don’t know where in the process he decided to hold back and let the original’s plot remain mostly intact, and I’ll grant that anyone would be walking a fine edge by letting too much of his own voice and style leak into the story - approaching it that way would mean a lot more work, and if you went too far, you could lose just enough of the original that it would cease to be the intended parody and instead become an animal all its own. But there are sooo many places where Grahame-Smith could have cut loose and just had fun with the horror, devastation, and violence of an 18th century zombie holocaust, and he just… didn’t. The problem is pretty basic, actually: you have a comedy about provincial British manners and a tale about a zombie infestation, and in the hands of Grahame-Smith, the two simply didn’t mix. Could someone else have done a better job? Perhaps.
The sheer language of the older book felt like a weight whenever Grahame-Smith inserted his deviations into the plot. For instance, there’s a passage late in the novel where two main characters have duel - in the original they “sparred” with words; in this version, they use swords and ninja kicks (more on this in a minute), and the whole scene, which should have been filled with hair-raising, high energy action, just wasn’t, because Grahame-Smith wrote the whole thing in passive voice. You just can’t write an action scene in passive voice and succeed. Austen herself didn’t really fall into the passive in the original - not much - but it’s easy for someone who’s trying to imitate “old” prose to slip into writing that way and think it’s okay.
Most importantly for me, though, and I’ve read other critics of the book who have said just about the same thing: if Grahame-Smith is a true fan of zombie fiction and zombie movies, it isn’t evident here. Man, I was wanting mayhem: guts spilled all over the place, decapitations, lumbering hordes of the undead surrounding people in their houses and bringing all holy hell down on those chumps living in the British countryside. Unfortunately, save for a few choice scenes, this doesn’t really happen. Grahame-Smith so modestly interspersed the “zombie” bits throughout the book that, for someone like me who gobbles this stuff up like candy, he might as well have not even bothered.
What he did insert a WHOLE LOT OF was a bunch of ninja/Asian martial artist bullshit. Elizabeth Bennet is not just a headstrong, stubborn girl - she’s a kung fu master and a vicious killer. Darcy isn’t just a reticent, dour elitist - he’s a crack shot and an expert swordsman. On pretty much every page, there’s some reference to martial arts. In fact, so many of the characters are so proficient in “the arts” that there’s little fear of any of them getting devoured by zombies - the zombies don’t stand a chance. And THAT, my friends, is the largest single failing of this book. There’s no tension in regard to the zombie outbreaks and attacks. They’re incidental to the plot and quickly passed over. The ninja stuff, however, is everywhere. Annoyingly so: the name of the book ISN’T Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Ninjas.
The thing that truly amazes me about this book is this: it turned out to be such a huge seller that now there’s a movie deal for it and a whole bunch of follow-ups and prequels planned. Still, I guess that’s not SO surprising, consider the state of Hollywood, the insanity of the bestseller market, and the low standards of mainstream America. Let me be one to tell you, though: the classic novel Pride and Prejudice deserves every accolade ever given to it, and I’m grateful to the updated parody for enticing me to read the original.
As for the new book: Don’t believe the hype.