Easily one of the most famous novels of the British Regency era, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is still widely read today and its themes of romance, class, and family drama make it perfect material for TV and film adaptation. In 1995 the BBC ran a miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle that remains perhaps the best-known screen version, and in 2005 Joe Wright directed a feature film adaptation with Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley. Now that another decade has passed there’s another version of Pride and Prejudice about to arrive in theaters, but this one is slightly different to any that have gone before.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, directed by Burr Steers and based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, features the same characters as Austen’s book and the same problems of class division and its interference with affairs of the heart. However, the five Bennet sisters also face an additional challenge: 70 years ago a zombie outbreak decimated the world, and so the Bennet girls have been trained in combat from a very early age in order to prepare them for the fight against the “manky dreadfuls.” Being able to lace a corset and slice off heads are skills expected of any respectable young lady, and the Bennets’ search for a husband takes place right alongside their struggle to stay alive.
So, what kind of effect does the introduction of zombies have upon the characters that we’re so familiar with? Last year Screen Rant visited the set of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in the English village of Old Basing, to meet the cast and get to know their characters.
Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James)
The relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy has never been particularly smooth, with the two of them engaging in vicious verbal sparring matches more often than they wax poetic to one another. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, those fights become physical sparring matches, as both Elizabeth and Darcy (Sam Riley) are highly skilled fighters. “I haven’t got any injuries,” James said, when asked about filming the more action-packed aspects of Liz Bennet’s life. “But I definitely injured other people, like poor Sam.”
“She kicks my arse,” Riley confirms.
There’s a whole new aspect to Darcy’s snobbery that’s introduced alongside the zombies: the matter of training. “Everyone who’s anybody” is shipped off for combat training in Japan, but Mr. Bennet could only afford to send his girls to China. The difference is the zombie-fighting education equivalent to “public school versus comprehensive.” Despite the fact that Liz Bennet is a member of the lower gentry, she “stirs something” inside reluctant romantic Mr. Darcy.
So, what’s the weapon of choice for the second eldest Bennet sister? “Ms. Bennet is a sword/dagger ninja,” James explains. She has “daggers hidden everywhere” and usually fights with two daggers, with a weapon always tucked away somewhere in case of sudden zombie attack. “I’m getting to let out all my pent-up rage,” she laughs.
Lily’s zombie apocalypse plan: “I’d run and find myself a badger den and burrow down… get canned fruit and hide.”
Mary Bennet (Millie Brady)
The middle child of the Bennet family and the ‘plainest’ of the sisters (which, looking at this cast, says a great deal about the Bennet genes), Mary doesn’t get much of a chance to shine in the original novel – her main characteristics being her love of books and her social awkwardness. “She’s still kind of goofy and lovable,” Brady says. “She’s still there reading her book… but then she also gets down to business.” The evidence of that is all around during the interview, which takes place in a converted barn where the floor is littered with dead zombies.
When it comes to dealing with the undead horde, the other side of Mary’s personality comes out. “She’s actually quite stony-faced about it,” Brady reveals, describing her fighting style as being very aggressive (Mary, like Elizabeth, wields daggers). In contrast to her usually reserved nature, when Mary goes into action mode her dress opens to reveal massive thigh slits up the side that allow her to access her daggers and give her freer movement in a fight. These are concealed in such a way that “when we’re standing at the ball you can’t see anything.” The zombie epidemic certainly seems to have had an interesting effect on fashion.
Brady and the other actresses don’t have the years of martial arts and weapons training that the Bennet sisters do, which means that preparing for the film was a sharp learning curve. “We got in there the first day and we were like Bambi on ice,” Brady recalls. She praises the film’s stunt team for being able to react in fight scenes even when things don’t quite go to plan, but there was one rather awkward incident that day when Brady began brawling with an ordinary extra she mistook for a stunt performer. “I had my villager who was underneath me… and he was like, ‘No, help, I’m not trained for this!’”
Millie’s zombie apocalypse plan: “Smash them with my book. [Laughs] I’d probably run off, honestly.”
Jane Bennet (Bella Heathcote)
“The thing I love about Jane is that she is optimistic without being naive,” are Heathcote’s first words when asked about the basics of her character. Jane Bennet is the eldest of the sisters and widely considered the most attractive marriage prospect – particularly by Mr. Charles Bingley (Douglas Booth). It’s a fortunate match, since Bingley himself isn’t very good at fighting and has to be rescued by Jane on at least one occasion – something that Heathcote is delighted by. “It’s so fun being the girl rescuing the boy, I have to say!”
Kindness is one of her strongest character traits, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Jane isn’t quite as comfortable with killing zombies as the rest of the family. “I think… she takes it more personally and is more affected by the killings,” Heathcote muses. In one scene, Jane finds herself face-to-face with the zombified version of a woman that she used to know, and is forced to kill her. “There’s something really frightening about that, or confronting about that.”
Now that so many decades have passed since the initial epidemic, a sense of normality has been restored to British life; it’s not all zombies all the time. “It’s weird because some weeks we come in and it feels like we’re shooting Pride and Prejudice.” Tackling such a classic story – which already has an adaptation that many would consider definitive – is a daunting prospect, so the presence of zombies actually made Heathcote “feel safer about entering the world of Pride and Prejudice,” especially since she loves the original novel so much. At the core of her character, she actress believes that Jane is still very much the same person that Austen wrote about: “I feel like the character stays fairly consistent throughout, it’s just the scenarios that they’re presented with.”
Bella’s zombie apocalypse plan: “Probably exactly as these girls are doing: just train the hell up.”
Kitty Bennet (Suki Waterhouse)
Kitty and Lydia Bennet are, in Austen’s novel, the youngest siblings and a very close-knit pair of sisters, so it seems appropriate that Suki Waterhouse and Ellie Bamber are interviewed alongside one another. Needless to say, even a zombie apocalypse can’t entirely alter the natures of these two characters: “We’re giggly, normal girls by day,” says Waterhouse.. When the undead attack, however, they’re ready to get down to business. “It only takes one bite and you’re a zombie, so you’ve just got to slay ’em down.”
Kitty’s weapon of choice is a sword, and Brady describes her fighting style as “straight in there and quite deadpan.” Waterhouse probably had the most advantage out of all the actresses in training, since she did a lot of karate growing up and was able to demonstrate these skills in the film. The fact that the Bennet sisters are so good at fighting also means that when they fight among themselves, things can get rather physical. When that happens, Lydia and Kitty tend to team up. “We do a thing where I get on the floor and then Lydia pushes Liz over me,” Waterhouse says. Suddenly sibling rivalry seems a whole lot more dangerous.
Suki’s zombie apocalypse plan: “I have a friend, who has actually built a secret dugout in case there is something like this… so I’d go there.”
Lydia Bennet (Ellie Bamber)
The youngest and silliest of all the Bennet sisters, Lydia ends up causing an awful lot of trouble for her family in Austen’s novel when she scandalously elopes with Mr. Wickham. Described by Bamber as the “cheeky little sister,” Lydia’s fighting style is “fiery” and her weapon of choice is two small daggers. It might be difficult to reconcile the image of the extremely girly and flirtatious Lydia with a zombie-killing warrior, but Bamber explains that this is just what the world is like for the Bennets. “We’ve been born into it, because it’s been going on for 70 years, so I think we’re… taking it in our stride.”
In fact, Lydia isn’t very interested in zombies or killing at all. “She knows when to switch it off,” Bamber says, but most of the time “she is very, very flirtatious… She’s hungry for it, almost.” Despite being the youngest, Lydia wants to be married before any of her sisters. Both Bamber and Burr Steers hinted that this might get her into trouble when it comes to Mr. Wickham. According to the director, Wickham is “more formidable and not just sort of a foil” in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so he could get Lydia into more trouble than simply social disgrace.
Ellie’s zombie apocalypse survival plan: “I’d probably just get a chainsaw and just run around and be like, ‘I’m going to kill you all!’ [Laughs]. I’d probably try and hunt them down.”
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies opens in U.S. theaters on February 5th, 2016.