In today’s zombie culture, there’s no question there’s a danger of over-saturation, especially given the massive success of the TV series “The Walking Dead,” its companion series “Fear the Walking Dead,” and a slew of feature films — some scary and some funny, hence the subgenre the “zom-com.”
Fortunately, best-selling author Seth Grahame-Smith was at the forefront of the new-wave zombie movement in 2009 with his smash novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” which is a mash-up of the zombie culture and Jane Austen’s literary classic about the intertwining romance between men and women from different social classes in England in the 1900s.
In a recent phone conversation, I told Grahame-Smith the first time I heard the title of his novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” I exclaimed, “Oh, my God, is this guy a genius or what?” Grahame-Smith, however, said, other reactions to his work were not as enthusiastic.
“Most people stopped at ‘Oh, my God,'” Grahame-Smith said, with a laugh. “To this day, I think there are people who still don’t know what to make of it.”
The reason he thinks the book endured, and ultimately was adapted into a feature film of the same name, new in theaters nationwide Friday, is because the novel came out when the proverbial iron was hot. As for why the iron was hot before he struck it, Grahame-Smith said he’s not sure.
“I can’t attribute the book’s success to anything else than good timing,” Grahame-Smith observed. “We just happened to have the right book at the right time, and hit the zeitgeist in the right way. I wish I could figure out why it worked, because I’d be able to replicate it every time out, but for some reason, that one idea struck a chord in people at that time.”
Given the proliferation of zombies in pop culture, it’s hard to say how “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Quirk Books) would be received as a new novel today. But if the film version is any indication, my guess is that it would be perceived as fresh as the day the ink dried on the first copy of Grahame-Smith’s novel. The film — which stars Lily James (“Cinderella,” “Downton Abbey”) as the novel’s legendary heroine, Elizabeth Bennet — has a narrative as naturally captivating as Austen’s original classic, but is enhanced by the inclusion of a growing zombie army.
So, no matter the number of the new zombie projects to lumber in the public’s view, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” still towers head and shoulders above any flesh-eating wannabe gnawing at its ankles.
Grahame-Smith, whose big-screen credits include the screenplays for director Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” and the Burton-produced “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (based on his own novel), said he took very seriously the idea of infesting a classic like “Pride and Prejudice” with zombies for his novel (director Burr Steers adapted the film’s screenplay), which is why characters like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy play it straight in the midst of all the bloody madness. One thing’s for certain: neither the novel, nor the film, are parodies of the original source material.
“What I try to do each time out, not only with my books, but TV and movies, is try to give an A-level of execution to a B-genre concept,” Grahame-Smith, 40, explained. “To me, the more audacious the title or concept you’re trying to get across is, the more you really have to put in the work, the research, the time to make it unexpectedly make sense. When I wrote, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’ on its surface, it was a very ridiculous proposition.
“But I also did my due diligence and researched Lincoln’s life — his speeches, his letters, his personal correspondence — learning not only about the things you don’t necessarily learn in American history class in high school, but really becoming a mini-Lincoln scholar so I can really understand the man, who he was and the times he lived in, and try to make this ridiculous book seem plausible,” Grahame-Smith added. “The biggest compliment I can get from a reader time and time again, is that they say they forget while they are reading the book that it never happened and it’s absolutely absurd. That’s really the fun for me, to pull a book-length sleight-of-hand trick on the reader.”
Needless to say, Graham-Smith devoured all things Austen while preparing to write “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
“With ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ it was not only about reading and re-reading the book in depth, but reading everything I could get my hands on that Austen wrote, and everything about her, her life and her time,” Grahame-Smith said. “I needed things to seem authentic so I could to the best of my ability mimic the voice of one of the most gifted writers of her time.”
Now that Austen’s voice has been reconstituted once again, this time in cinematic form, Grahame-Smith hopes that “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” doesn’t get pegged by potential audiences as a chick flick. He’s pretty confident that the word “Zombies” in the title will make guys more amenable to take a date to the film, and once they get there, they will discover that there’s something for both him and her.
“I’ve been telling people it’s the ultimate date movie,” Grahame-Smith enthused. “Guys are going to go and they’ll love the bad-assery of it and watching these beautiful women kick zombie ass, and in addition to the girls watching their fellow women kick zombie ass, they’re also going to love the fact that it hews pretty closely to all the same romantic overtones of the original ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ We’re not actually taking anything away from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ we’re simply taking that original story and adding zombie mayhem to it.”
Grahame-Smith, whose most recent novel is “The Last American Vampire” (Grand Central Publishing), said he’s done with the script for Burton’s hotly anticipated “Beetlejuice” sequel, but a start date for the production is yet to be determined.