Has there ever been a work of literature that couldn't be improved by adding zombies? Seth Grahame-Smith is the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the premise of which explains itself: the Bennet family lives in a rural English village, where their primary concerns are a) marrying off their five daughters, and b) defending themselves against wave after wave of the remorseless, relentless walking dead. Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman chatted with Grahame-Smith about the challenge of updating a classic.
Tell me where the idea to add zombies to Pride and Prejudice came from. Was there a Eureka moment?
Actually the credit for this belongs to my editor, Jason Rekulak. He had had this sort of long-gestating idea of doing some kind of mashup, he called it. He didn't know what it was, he just knew there was something to it. He had these lists, and on one side he had a column of War and Peace and Crime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights and whatever public domain classic literature you can think of. And on the other side he would have these phenomena like werewolves and pirates and zombies and vampires. He called me one day, out of the blue, very excitedly, and he said, all I have is this title, and I can't stop thinking about this title. And he said: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For whatever reason, it just struck me as the most brilliant thing I'd ever heard. (See pictures of mummies from around the world.)
How did you go about converting the original book into a zombie novel?
I didn't want to mess with Jane Austen's overall structure, because it's a masterpiece. Who am I to screw with one of the most brilliantly plotted novels of all time?
I hadn't read the book since I was 14, and when I read it at 14 I found it sort of slow and unenjoyable. So the first thing I did was to read it all over again, straight through, just to refamiliarize myself with it. Then I read it again very carefully, marking up the margins, underlining things, making notes, sort of working out the logistics all right, if I change this in chapter 6, how does it resonate in chapter 56? And so on. I was also looking for places to add things that hadn't existed in the original book. Zombie attacks, usually.
I was surprised at how easily the book meshed with the zombie genre. It made a weird kind of sense.
It was strange. It's almost as if Jane Austen was subconsciously setting this up for us. You have this sharp-tongued, fiercely independent heroine. It's not a huge leap to say she's a sharp-daggered, fiercely independent heroine. And then you have Darcy, on the other side, who's a pompous and privileged guy. And you say, all right, he's a pompous and privileged slayer. And that's how they battle it out with each other.
But then you have little details everywhere, like the fact that there are soldiers encamped near Meryton in the original book, for seemingly no reason whatsoever. I mean, there's just this huge regiment of soldiers there, and the obvious thing to do in this case is to say that, well, they're there digging up graves and burning bodies and fighting the unmentionable menace. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)
I'm starting to see the logic. So much of Austen is about the unmentionable about using wit and good manners to cover up nasty things like sex and money. So why not have one of those unmentionable things be zombies?
That was what was so funny to me about this idea, is the fact that these people in Austen's books are kind of like zombies. They live in this bubble of extreme wealth and privilege, and they're so preoccupied with the little trivial nothings of their lives who's dating who, who's throwing this ball, or having this dinner party. As long as there's enough lamb for the dinner table, they could care less what's falling apart around them. So in this book, in this version, it literally is falling apart around them, and they sort of carry on writing letters to each other about hurt feelings and loves and passions and all these things. It's ridiculous!
I felt a little bad for Charlotte, who gets infected by the zombie virus.
Poor Charlotte. She can't catch a break. Not only does she get stricken with this strange plague and slowly turn into a zombie, but people say horrible things about her in this version. Like, she should just be happy that she's invited to this dinner party, she's a spinster, she should expect nothing more than a crust of bread washed down with a cup of loneliness. Kind of playing up what Jane Austen had already put there.
Where else did you go for inspiration? What are your favorite zombie books and movies?
I'm a fan of Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide. I thought that was extremely funny and well done. And I'm a fan of his World War Z. On the movie side I'm a classic George Romero guy. I like my zombies slow and stupid as opposed to this new fast-moving, clever zombie trend that's been hitting movies.
There's been something of a zombie revival lately. What do you attribute that to?
I think partly it has to do with Brooks. But in a larger sense, people realize that zombies are likeable villains. You have sympathy for them. Zombies haven't chosen to be horrible. They've been infected, and now they're sort of doomed to walk the earth with this singular purpose of seeking out and infecting other people. So there's something tragic about them.
And then of course there's something funny about them. They're stupid. They're so helpless. In the books there's scenes where, if people planted cauliflower in their garden, you might find a zombie on its hands and knees, gnawing on a head of cauliflower, having mistaken it for a brain.
And since the '20s, when White Zombie came out, and in the 1960s, with the Romero movies, zombies have always been an easy metaphor for whatever ills society finds itself up against. They've been used to represent everything from rampant consumerism to the spread of communism. We live in an age when it's very easy to be afraid of everything that's going on in the world. There are these large groups of faceless people somewhere in the world, who mean to do us harm, and cannot be reasoned with. Zombies are sort of familiar territory.