Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fresh twist on Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen will never be the same after this delicious Zombie invasion.
Written and directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, Charlie St Cloud), and based on the best-selling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fresh twist on Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice.
The Zombie Apocalypse began with call from actress Natalie Portman, who is one of the producers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, started the ball rolling on bringing the book to the big screen. “We’ve known each other for a number of years,” notes producer Allison Shearmur, “and she said, ‘You have to read this book, it’s called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.’”
Shearmur wasn’t yet aware of the phenomenon Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel was to become. “I thought she was joking,” she laughs.
But the book soon picked up strong reviews and became a publishing sensation, finding a comfortable spot on the New York Times bestseller list where it would remain for several months.
Finally, Shearmur picked up a copy. “Natalie was absolutely right about it,” Shearmur now admits. “Seth Grahame-Smith is a very clever man, and he knew the source material back to front. The book resonated with so many people because it doesn’t change Pride and Prejudice and it allows you to love it in a different way. It introduces this story to an entirely new generation.”
Producer Sean McKittrick was already aboard the production when Shearmur circled back around.
“The book came to me by email, four or five months before publication,” he recalls. “And I saw the cover and I immediately got it. It’s a perfect extension of the Austen story, and the zombies become a physical element that amplifies the themes of the original text.”
He expands: “The zombies represent the biggest fears we have, and they’re an amplification of the hierarchical themes in Austen’s original story, in terms of the class system in Victorian England and the independent woman that Elizabeth Bennet is. While there is some dark humor to the story, we felt that, as with the book, the tone needed to be very serious and direct and respectful to both the original text and the zombie genre. We definitely did NOT want to make a campy version.”
Or as the author, Seth Grahame-Smith, described to The Daily Beast, “(In Austen’s book) you have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway.”
Shearmur ran into Burr Steers in Los Angeles one morning and the director of Igby Goes Down and Charlie St. Cloud told her that he had a project he was interested in. “I was wracking my brain, knowing the kinds of movies Burr makes, and thinking, ‘Which script is Burr interested in?’ He cut me off and said, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
“He said, ‘I know exactly how to do it,’” Shearmur remembers. “And when a person with that level of talent says to you that they know how to do something that could be quite tonally difficult, I had to listen.”
Producer, Marc Butan took the film out of turnaround from Lions Gate and made the final decision to hire Steers over half a dozen others.
“Every pitch we heard on how to adapt the book into a script focused on horror, special effects and new ways to crate zombie mayhem,” Butan recalls. “Burr was the only person to recognize that the zombies in the period setting made the movie fun, fresh and original, but the film’s greatest strength was with its original source material – ‘Pride &Prejudice’. His faithfulness to Austen’s novel was the key.”
With Shearmur, Butan oversaw the development of the script, packaged it and took it to Cannes to put the movie together. He then sold the US rights to Cross Creek Pictures producer, Brian Oliver, who was previously a producer on the Academy Award® nominated Black Swan. Oliver came on board because he was attracted to Steers’ vision of the book, which he had read many years before.
“I felt the book from page one of reading it, and Burr’s take on it had the right combination of action and romance while encompassing the themes of Jane Austen’s novel. He brought his wit and youthfulness to the project. It was his idea to play it straight and laugh with the characters and not at the characters,” Oliver notes.
Steers understands the perception that touching a classic could be considered sacrilege. “But we have all of the Pride and Prejudice beats in this movie,” he insists. “It’s just set in this alternate world where the zombie apocalypse is taking place, as opposed to the Napoleonic Wars.”
“The themes of wealth and marriage translate well and the zombies were a good replacement for the lower class and the war with the Zombies replace the Napoleonic wars well,” adds Oliver.
Independent of this project, Steers had done his own zombie research and coupled with his affection for the Austen source material and Grahame-Smith’s novel, he had a singular and informed vision of how to approach the movie. He had been working on a movie that took place in Haiti and had extensively studied such things as the Tonton Macoutes, a mythical Creole bogeyman who kidnapped children and later corrupt dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s fearsome paramilitary force took the same name and some of the same tactics “… to freak out the natives during the Haitian genocide. I also looked at Baron Sunday (the DC comic crime-lord who murdered via voodoo), the relation to European law. So I was aware there could be a different take on it and as Seth proved, ‘Jane Austen’ was a perfect template.”
Shearmur recalls reading Steers’ first draft of the screenplay. “You could tell a director was writing,” she remembers. “It was very specific in terms of shots, and it’s tonally perfect. It’s scary, it’s romantic, it’s funny and he didn’t leave one of the subplots on the floor. He even managed to have Darcy go and make a proper woman of Lydia. All the while creating some super badass zombie killers while staying true to the original characters.”
Steers’ main instinct was the fundamental truth of cinema that is: Pride and Prejudice always works. “Look at the Bridget Jones franchise,” he says. “As much Pride and Prejudice as you can put into something, that’s always a good bet.”
Adding the zombie element on top was like icing the cake. “The idea is that this pandemic started in the early 1700s,” notes Steers. “I used the Black Plague as a model, and that was also how I thought of everybody moving out of London and getting this distance between themselves and the infected in the capital.”
He continues: “The 1700s also marked the age of industrialisation, and that is happening alongside this pandemic, so you have these giant steam engines created to destroy zombies. I don’t want to say ‘steam punk’, but there is an element of that to this.”
Kitsch was definitely NOT a welcome element. “There’s that horrible phrase, I didn’t want it to be that in any way,” Steers says. “We have all these different genres and we attempted to do all of them justice, as well as we possibly could and blend them together in a coherent world. And, weirdly, it is. It all fits together. You take the Napoleonic Wars out, and put the zombie apocalypse in, and everything else still plays.”
In the end, Burr Steers says Pride and Prejudice and Zombies offers something for everyone. “For the horror fans, there is real horror; real, frightening zombies, and I think even more subversive and aberrant than things you’ve seen before because they can think.”
And for fans of Pride and Prejudice, all of this is set against the backdrop of one of literature’s most beloved love stories. Steers continues: “It raises the stakes of everything. All of Jane Austen’s themes are ramped up as the characters fight off the zombie apocalypse.”
The Action of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
As in the novel, the Bennet sisters and Darcy use Eastern fighting styles to combat the zombie invasion. “England was already in Asia at this point in history,” notes Steers. “They were already on the Silk Road and, obviously, things that were once very Asian became English. Tea, gunpowder and things like that became very much integrated into English culture. Our idea is that, with this war going on, they’ve also integrated martial arts.”
The fighting, Steers says, comes from the characters, in the manner of the great Eastern martial arts films like Seven Samurai. “They each have very specific skills based on who they are, and it’s not at all random.”
It was Grahame-Smith’s idea in the novel to use the varied histories of the East to highlight societal differences between the characters. Japan, at the time, was the preserve of the upper classes; so Japanese fighting styles seemed especially fitting for the well-heeled world the Bennets are struggling to mix in. “Japan is Eton and China is the lesser, and the Bennets have gone to China,” Steers explains. “So the snobbery of the Bingleys is that they don’t have the right pedigree. These are all things that play into Jane Austen’s themes, and they explore the idea of gender roles and young, female empowerment.”
“They’re slightly out-there,” says Lily James. “They’re the rogue kids for training in China and this snobbishness comes into play with Bingley. There’s a funny battle between me and Caroline Bingley, where I speak Chinese and she speaks Japanese.”
Despite some class-based snobbery, the girls really do know their stuff when it comes to fighting. “They’re basically martial arts heroes,” says James. “We had to do a lot of training with Maurice Lee, the stunt coordinator, to try and look like we knew how to hold a sword. And I think we all embraced it fully and became martial artists.”
Says Lee: “It’s not every day you get a Kung Fu film with all the different styles in it within the UK. I definitely wanted to be a part of this.”
Lee is a former fighter who did boxing, kickboxing, and Kung Fu, amongst other disciplines. This made him uniquely placed to train the Chinese-inspired Bennet sisters in their techniques.
“The main thing about choreographing this film is knowing the script and knowing the characters,” he explains. “The style has to match the storyline. How would these characters react to the situations they’re faced with?”
The casting of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies represents an eclectic ensemble of high caliber talent that offer a new ferociously subversive side to the prodigiously talented Bennet sisters, as they use their martial arts training to take down the zombie hordes. “When you have a book this popular and you’re making a genre movie you can smuggle certain things into it,” notes Steers. “It gives you a license to cast people that you might not be able to if you didn’t have the power of genre opening it up, or a well-known title.”
Lily James plays the lead role of Elizabeth Bennet, one of literature’s best-known and best-loved heroines. James already had experience as a forward-thinking young lady cast in a period drama, as the feisty Lady Rose MacClare Aldridge on Downton Abbey. As the titular star of Disney’s 2015 live-action retelling of Cinderella, she also had the opportunity to both honor and reinvent a classic character in a contemporary way. Both roles are kindred spirits to Elizabeth Bennet.
James read the screenplay and fell for it after just seven pages. “It was so well written, and Burr has done a great job with it,” she notes. “I loved it. Pride and Prejudice has been done so many times, and so successfully, that I think I’d never attempt it, but when you add zombies it becomes an interesting challenge and we’ve all embraced it together.”
“Aside from being an incredibly strong technical actress,” notes Steers, “Lily James is filled with passion and is just so charismatic in front of the camera.”
James knew the Austen novel well, since first reading it in school. This added a level of challenge for the actress. “My main struggle throughout the shoot has been marrying the Liz Bennet that I’m so familiar with and this version of the martial artist, Elizabeth Bennet.”
Her great love and foil, Mr. Darcy is played by Sam Riley, who recently played Diaval in Maleficent and so certainly knew a thing or two about playing opposite powerful, complicated female characters.
When Riley heard about the project, he hadn’t been aware of the book, and his initial reaction was one of surprise. “I thought, ‘Are things going that badly?’” he laughs. But despite the obvious humor of the title, he soon embraced Grahame-Smtih’s attention to detail and seriousness in making the melange succeed. “When I picked it up, I read it from cover to cover in a single sitting. That’s pretty rare, because usually after 10 or 15 pages you know whether you’re interested or not. I put it down and immediately called my agent to set up a meeting. Playing Mr Darcy as a Samurai sword-wielding zombie killer… What’s not to like, really?”
Riley’s inspiration for his Darcy was exactly what Steers wanted. “He said, ‘I’m going to play it like a punk James Bond,’” laughs the director. “And he really did approach it that way.”
“Tonally he’s more forceful than the book’s Darcy,” notes McKittrick. “He’s not a playful Darcy, but the book’s themes still run through him.”
“What really appealed to me was playing this iconic character as an action hero,” continues Riley. “I’ve played a lot of serious roles in the past, and we’re playing this quite straight, but the idea of admiring Liz Bennet at a distance while whacking a zombie in the head and running him through was amazing.”
Bella Heathcote describes herself as a steadfast Jane Austen fan. “I was moderately obsessed with the BBC miniseries,” she confesses. “And so that’s where it all started for me.”
She went back to the book when she was cast as Jane Bennet, but put it down in favor of the screenplay. “There’s a point in our story where there’s a big digression obviously, but Jane is one and the same with the character in Austen’s book; the circumstance of her world is slightly different and certainly more lethal,” she explains. “She’s more than prepared for it – in this version there’s been a zombie apocalypse and she’s gone to China with her sisters to study martial arts. It’s a sign of their times: in addition to painting and singing and sewing and all the skills women had to have back then, they also know how to fight.”
In true Jane fashion, Heathcote spent three months learning Kung Fu before she even arrived on set. “I got really into it,” she confesses. “I did that, with a bit of boxing, and then I mostly threw myself into it when I got to set.”
Suki Waterhouse, who starred in 2015 young adult hit Insurgent, plays Kitty Bennet, who absolutely falls for the wrong guy with disastrous consequences. “She’s the second youngest sister,” notes Waterhouse. “She’s the quiet one, and perhaps not the brightest Bennet in the box, I’m afraid.”
Joining the ensemble has been a tremendous learning experience for the young actress. “I’ve learnt so much from just watching actors like Sally Phillips, who plays our mum. She can make us laugh so much before she’s even said anything and it’s just the way her brain works.”
Waterhouse grew up practicing karate – her father taught at the local center – and the fight sequences definitely attracted her from the start.
“The title of the movie alone made me want to do it! And then the script was so entertaining. I put myself on tape for the audition and threw in loads of karate moves. I was a bit of a show off I have to say,” says Waterhouse.
Playing the part of the snobbish Bingley is Douglas Booth. “He’s this very wealthy aristocrat who moves into Netherfield and causes a great hysteria amongst the Bennet sisters,” he notes. “He’s also Darcy’s best friend, but he and Darcy are so different.”
Booth thinks this difference is reflected in his relationship with Sam Riley. “Sam and me are quite different people,” he explains. “But we get along so well, and so do Bingley and Darcy. He’s everything Darcy isn’t. He’s the one that’s always joking, he wants to have fun and he’ll be the last man standing at the bar. Darcy’s very caged and protected and introverted in a way.”
Booth was attracted to the film’s unique twist on the Austen classic. “Austen’s work was always social commentary,” he says. “And that’s the same here, but rather than discussing it over knitting they’re discussing it over battle. It’s fascinating and it’s what I really loved about it.”
He continues: “What’s interesting is that in other zombie films it’s often a journey: a hero trying to get from A to B to save his family. But here you have a really different setup, where you’re placing a world that we think we know into the middle of a zombie apocalypse and seeing how that world would survive.”
Agrees Jack Huston, who plays Wickham: “It stays so very true to the structure of the Austen story. But the zombie part adds a new element. You don’t really need to see another version of Pride and Prejudice because they’ve been so many and they’ve been so good, but Seth Grahame-Smith wrote this incredible book that brought something new to it. It gives us license to open it up and do different things especially in terms of the women. I just love that these girls are progressive and ballsy. Liz Bennet was in fact very outspoken and forward thinking in the novel but in our movie we get to push that even further. There’s something really sexy about these women as kickass warriors,” Huston notes.
The Victorian social stratification is translated into a zombie paradigm, of which Wickham is painfully aware.
“After the outbreak of the undead, the world changed dramatically – the upper class managed to sort of section themselves off – Lady Catherine calls them zombie aristocrats – but a strange sort of class system results. Wickham’s idea is to create some sort of appeasement so that humans and zombies can live together but his motives, as we soon find out, are less than altruistic,” Huston says.
Charles Dance plays the Bennet family patriarch, Mr. Bennet. “Charles has this quiet intensity as Mr. Bennet,” notes James. “You felt this quite protective, fierce quality to him which was really interesting.”
Says Dance: “I think even the most protective of Jane Austen fans will get the joke, actually. And I hope they do because we’ve all had an awful lot of fun on this film. Probably too much fun.”
His Mr. Bennet is, he says, “a little more proactive,” than the book. “My take on it was that Mr. Bennet is in this house full of women, surrounded by daughters, and because of this zombie plague happening in England he’s had them all trained up as though they were boys, to become great fighters. So although he’s patriarchal and cynical in the story, he is most of the time reactive and it’s Mrs. Bennet who makes the most noise.”
He describes the film’s pitch as “audacious, to say the least.” He continues: “I’m surrounded by this phenomenal cast of bright young things and it’s all rooted in the story. It’s just that we have the Bennet girls sitting around practicing their needlepoint after returning from Shaolin temples in China and becoming martial arts experts. It’s very, very funny, though we tried not to play it as a comedy, because all the best comedies are played straight.”
Steers notes how perfectly the ensemble gathered. “They all drew off each other and they all wanted to work together,” he says. “They push each other and they’re incredibly supportive of each other, with a healthy competitiveness. They’re a great young generation of British stars, who are all on the cusp of being stars, if they’re not there already.”