How to make a mash-up: Into a cauldron, toss some historical or fictional character, dusty novel, or ancient fairy tale. The more staid or stale or out of fashion, the better. Then, stir in creatures or villains from some different genre: zombies, witches, dinosaurs, even Nazis. Pour this mixture into a script, and bake for about 120 minutes at 75 million dollars, give or take a few million. Serve with a reliable dressing — blood and gore, perhaps — that most focus groups will find to their tastes. Prepared correctly, your Hollywood masterpiece will serve the masses.
On Friday, the mash-up rises again with "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." The movie version of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 novel of the same name retells Jane Austen's 1813 tale of manners, morality, social standing, and romance, but sets it in a reimagined Regency Era beset by the undead.
This latest recipe is in line with other mash-up efforts that both dumb down high art and history and smarten up genre conventions. In 2012, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" asked us to believe that Lincoln not only saved the union and emancipated millions of slaves, he also battled Draculas. In 2013's "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," the siblings sought Tarantino-style revenge on their wicked childhood nemesis. Recent books — ranging from "The Meowmorphosis" (Kafka and kittens conjoined) and "Verily, a New Hope," the first of six volumes retelling the "Star Wars" saga as Shakespeare plays — also blend high- and lower-brow fare.
Will this new concoction, equal parts Austen and zombie pandemic, deliver a much-needed shot in the arm or another box office blow to the genre? The filmmakers think they have a winning formula, of course.
"It works because you're taking this incredibly repressed society and re-conceiving it and then sticking in these agents of anarchy," says the film's screenwriter and director Burr Steers ("17 Again"), via telephone from Los Angeles. Aristocratic characters' concerns over who might secretly be undead and becoming infected create "so many more rules and preconditions. They just get smashed."
Heading the cast is Lily James (Lady Rose Aldridge in TV's "Downton Abbey"). She plays Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, remade as a feisty martial arts master who is "strong, free, independent, and fun, and ahead of her time," says James, in a phone conversation from LA. Sam Riley ("On the Road") plays Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth's smoldering romantic counterpart and similarly stuck-up zombie killer. The film also stars Douglas Booth ("Noah") as Mr. Bingley, Matt Smith (the BBC's "Doctor Who") as Mr. Collins, and Charles Dance ("Game of Thrones") as the father of the five Bennet sisters.
When James first saw the screenplay's title, she recalled being "very confused" and "mortified." "How can it be about zombies and 'Pride and Prejudice'?" But reading further, she saw how Steers's script was more than mere spoof. "We wanted it to feel real and serious, that the zombies were a real threat. And to take the 'Pride and Prejudice' story very straight," she says. "Then the humor comes out of the absurdity of it rather than winking at the camera."
While the film is "a load of fun," James also sees meaning amid all the swordplay and undead brain-bashing. "The upper class [is] so safe and secure in their homes," James says. The assault represents a middle-class revolution — "a rumble from underneath."
Steers doesn't see his fusing of the anachronistic and bad-ass as necessarily a mash-up. "The goal was really making it into a coherent piece of its own, being aware of the genre but taking it and moving on." He explains that Austen's original novel is set during the Napoleonic Wars, but Austen never explains the geopolitical backdrop. "There is that space you have to stitch into the subtext," he says. "It works, in the same way someone might stage 'Richard III' in Nazi Germany."
That said, the road "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" traveled to the big screen was strewn with corpses — that is, expired directors, screenwriters, and actors. David O. Russell, Mike White, and Craig Gillespie were each, at various times, on board to direct. Natalie Portman (also an original producer), Lily Collins, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Wasikowska, and Anne Hathaway were rumored for the female lead. The film also jumped production companies, from Lionsgate to Screen Gems. Russell also wrote the script's first draft; when he departed, according to Grahame-Smith, screen and television writer Marti Noxon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") took a stab at the story. When Steers finally became attached, he wrote his script from scratch.
It seems the art of the mash-up isn't easily mastered. Is "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" an action movie? A comedy? A costume drama? A horror parody? "Tonally, you have to walk a very fine line," says Grahame-Smith, via phone from LA. "It's very hard to reconcile these things in a movie." The former Emerson College film student also wrote the novel "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and the script of its film version. "I think it's an easier line to walk on the page than it is on the screen."
For him, the genre's success hinges on fealty to the source material, and approaching "the ridiculous with deadly seriousness." He didn't "mess with" what he calls Austen's "well-drawn characters and rock-solid plot." Rather, "I dialed them up to 11," he says. "Instead of Lizzie and Darcy sparring with words, they spar with swords."
No recent fad, the monster mash has roots that run deep into the crypt of cinematic history. Hollywood's attempt to draw upon different fan bases, and mix-and-match franchises, has "a long and successful tradition, going at least as far back as 1948's 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,'" says Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University. Notable older mash-ups include "Forbidden Planet" (1956), which marries sci-fi and Shakespeare's "The Tempest," and "The Valley of the Gwangi" (1969), a Western/monster flick combo (precursor to 2011's "Cowboys & Aliens").
Robert Moses Peaslee, professor of journalism and electronic media at Texas Tech University, chalks up the mash-up's venerable appeal to Hollywood's famously risk-averse climate. "By combining familiar, traditionally female-centric story lines with traditionally male-oriented genre elements," Hollywood is leveraging maximum audience reach, he says.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies professor at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, takes a grimmer outlook. "Genre mash-ups happen when genres collapse," he says. "All of these films are essentially parodies, which is always the last stage of any genre."
Whether or not Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, smarmily trafficking in kitsch, or has simply jumped the shark, the mash-up always flirts with crossing an invisible line. "The danger is in offending fans of one of the genres," says Levinson, "such as horror fans who want to be deadly serious, not comical, about the Frankenstein monster, or a purist who wants nothing supernatural in Jane Austen."
Those people might want to shield their eyes for what's coming next from Grahame-Smith. He's adapting and producing "Unholy Night," his "twisted take on the Nativity story." "At some point," he says, "people will be interested in making a biblical swashbuckler about the Three Wise Men."
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.