Book vs. Film: World War Z
I’ll be honest: this is a tricky one.
About two months ago, Max Brooks, author of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, publicly dissed the Hollywood adaptation now raking in the bucks at the box office, warning viewers that the film and his book had one thing in common: the title. If fans were expecting a faithful page-to-screen translation, Brooks said, they would be disappointed.
Now, it’s fairly common for authors to dislike movie versions of their work. Stephen King was famously pissed at Stanley Kubrick for decades after the director ‘massacred’ his novel, The Shining. And the master of horror isn’t the only one: Anthony Burgess also harbored a long-term beef against Kubrick for 'missing the mark' on A Clockwork Orange; Ken Kesey disapproved of Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Alan Moore hates everything.
These reactions are understandable. Writers become deeply invested in their creations, and it's difficult to turn them over to someone else, basically giving up all control. So even when the filmmakers do a decent job adapting their work for the big screen, there’s going to be some nitpicking. So before I saw World War Z: The Movie, I thought Brooks was perhaps exaggerating a tad when he said the film bore no resemblance to his novel.
But alas, this was no exaggeration: aside from one sequence and a few sprinkled elements here and there, Brooks’s World War Z and the film adaptation created by a host of writers and director Marc Forster are indeed two very, very different animals. It isn’t just that the plot is different and most of the characters in the film appear nowhere in the book: the two World War Zs are on completely separate tonal wavelengths. Brooks’s creation is a seriocomic social satire on culture-run-amok and the sweeping changes in attitude and lifestyle that arise out of the literal ashes of a supernatural war. Shambling fiends are present, but they take a backseat to human drama—think Romero’s Dawn of the Dead meets a Ken Burns documentary.
On the other hand, Forster’s film presents a straight-forward, plot-driven, serious narrative with little comic relief and intense, almost non-stop action, featuring hyperactive, bullet-fast zombies who demonstrate frightening hive-mind behavior—think Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead meets, well, pretty much every action zombie movie made after that 2004 remake, but with enough original elements and ideas to make it enjoyable.
How does one pit such disparate narratives against one another and expect a true winner to emerge? You may have your zombie preferences set in stone, but honestly, if fast, rapid zombies are done well, I welcome the genre twist. So I can’t very well judge the film for going that route.
No, the key to comparing and contrasting these works is to look at the elements they do have in common—character development, morals, and zombie carnage—and see which one handles them better. So let’s do that.
Before we get started, I’ll warn you now: there are some spoiler-ish moments in this column. I won’t say anything that will completely kill the plot of either book or film, but just know I will share some revelations. Not cool with that? Come back and see me when you’re all caught up.
1. Character Development
Brooks’s novel doesn’t follow a single, through-line narrative, but rather presents the reader with a collection of vignettes, or ‘interviews’ with the men and women who survived the zombie apocalypse ten years prior. Each story is told in first person, with some interjections and explanations from the ‘interviewer’—a UN investigator charged with capturing the real story. You can tell Brooks really internalized each character, and they manage to come alive on the page. Your suspension of disbelief kicks in, and suddenly you’re not reading an account of a fictional war, but something that seems factual. This has a lot to do with Brooks's leaving the actual zombies in the background and focusing on the human reactions and responses to these impossible creatures. This was Brooks’s intent from the get go: in a transcript of an online chant published in the Washington Post, the author stated:
Everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality... well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real. The technology, politics, economics, culture, military tactics... it was a LOT of homework. (Shout out to Kimberly Turner for first running this quote in her column The 10 Books Every Zombie Fan Must Read.)
Take for example this anecdote, told by Roy Elliot, a famous pre- and post-war filmmaker (modeled, I think, after Steven Spielberg), who made propaganda movies in the vein of the Why We Fight series produced during World War II:
Yes, they [his films] were lies and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used. The lies our government told us before the war, the ones that were supposed to keep us happy and blind, those were the ones that burned, because they prevented us from doing what had to be done...The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent. ‘We’re going to be okay.’ That was our message...
Just as Brooks said, except for the zombie bits, that speech could be applied to just about any real-world situation, particularly in this post-9/11 culture. And this is just one example from the one hundred plus stories told in World War Z, all of which present realistic, well-defined characters regaling us with tales of heartache, loss, survival and hope.
Now, contrast this with the movie adaptation, which focuses on lone protagonist Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as he races to solve the zombie problem—where they came from and how to stop them. This story makes for engrossing cinema all around, but this is decidedly a plot-driven narrative, with character serving a smaller role.
This isn't to say the filmmakers aren't at all concerned with character, as we get to know Gerry Lane fairly well. In a nod to the source material, Lane is a former UN special operative, now retired in order to spend more time with his family. In fact, Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard of Lost fame, among other credits, rewrote massive portions of the script in order to beef up the third act and to shed more light on Gerry's personal life, so as to better forge a bond between the character and the audience. These elements work well, though overall Gerry doesn't really have an arc. He's forced back into work against his wishes, and he finds himself in life-and-death situations that compel him to act, but he doesn't necessarily learn anything about himself or change his ways.
And he doesn't have to. So many characters from celebrated films, books and TV shows hardly change at all—from Rick Deckard in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, to Llewelyn Moss in Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men (as well as the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation), to Gob in Arrested Development. Significant alterations to a character’s way of thinking are not prerequisites for great stories, so long as the character is smart and makes bold decisions in the face of external events.
Gerry Lane certainly fits into this category. You forget you’re watching one of the most recognizable men in Hollywood amidst a sea of semi-familiar faces and hordes of living dead ghouls. Brad Pitt goes away and Gerry Lane takes over. Admittedly, the ending felt abrupt, leaving me wanting a little more character resolution—I mean, the guy did everything to keep his family safe, but he also vowed to never leave them for work again. It’s a Catch-22 to be sure, but what are the consequences of his decisions, however noble and completely justified? Is he distant again as a result of the things he saw and had to do ‘out in the field,’ or will he tell his wife everything?
Every question doesn’t have to be answered in concrete detail, but at least some perfunctory acknowledgment of these elephants in the room could have helped nail home the film’s established emotional arcs. However, these aren’t deal-breaker elements, and their absence doesn’t hurt the overall film experience in the slightest. They would just be nice.
If you want complex, researched and realistic characters revealing details about themselves and, consequentially, clues to the inner workings of the human race, with moments of pure action peppered into the stew, stick with Max Brook’s World War Z. However, if you’d rather see the opposite—a plot-driven action narrative with enough character background and emotional investment to keep you watching, but not enough to make you ponder our existence, save the eye-strain and watch Marc Forster’s film instead.
Brooks’s attention to character detail and emotional arc aren't there merely to engage and engross the reader. The author has ulterior motives behind his actions, presenting us with a broader message that appears in almost every vignette. I think Kimberly Turner nails the moral of World War Z in her aforementioned column:
Brooks's portrayal of postwar culture hits a little too close to home, forcing readers to confront the darker side of human nature, the dangers of bureaucracy, American isolationism, and corporate corruption in between tales of the murderous undead.
In many ways, Brooks suggests that society is better off in the wake of near annihilation. Sure, there are ‘bad apples’ in the book who use the apocalypse to their own advantage, there are those who loot and steal, but over and over Brooks presents us with characters who are willing to step up to the plate and do what must be done to not only rebuild society but make it better, safer, more logical and more self-sustaining than the world we previously knew. All those things Turner listed, those aspects of society we’re forced to confront—they all fall by the wayside in Brooks’ World War Z, with their less greedy counterparts ascending the thrones of popular consciousness.
This concept is none the more prevalent than in the interview with Arthur Sinclair, former head of the Department of Strategic Resources, or DeStRes, an initiative dedicated to redirecting American citizens and commodities away from ‘frivolous’ destinations and toward the unified goal of reconstruction:
I met one gentleman on a coastal ferry from Portland to Seattle. He had worked in the licensing department for an advertising agency, specifically in charge of procuring the rights to classic rock songs for television commercials. Now he was a chimney sweep. Given that most homes in Seattle had lost their central heat and the winters were now longer and colder, he was seldom idle. ‘I help keep my neighbors warm,’ he said proudly.
Similarly, the military is forced to make sweeping changes, rethinking old battle strategies and severing technological dependence. The infamous Battle of Yonkers, in which all the machismo brass and hardcore firepower managed to only slow down a massive horde of ‘Zack’—their word for zombies—resulted in a significant victory for the undead. This prompts the higher-ups in the government and armed services to regroup and rebuild, just like the rest of society. They train well-rounded, mentally stable ground soldiers whose primary weapon is not a big, booming assault rifle, but a modified shovel rechristened a ‘lobo,’ good for lobbing off heads and discarding remains into bonfire pits—not just a weapon, but a tool.
Put simply, in order to survive and reclaim America, the military had to move away from that now all-too-familiar ‘let’s blow the shit out of everything and ask questions later’ mentality and settle into a more reserved, logical and skill-based form of combat. Brooks basically shows us a utopian vision of what the armed services could be.
So, does the film adopt this same viewpoint—that societally we’re better off after the zombie war than we were in the pre-war days? Well, yes and no. Bear in mind that the film’s narrative takes place during the initial outbreak (the 'Great Panic' in the novel). Gone are the observations made in hindsight, the reflections, the lessons learned. We’re presented with a story in which the revelations are at their genesis. Moreover, society is only beginning to fall apart in World War Z: The Movie, so Gerry Lane and all the other characters can only react accordingly and survive. They don’t have time to ponder the meaning of things when these murderous fiends are right on their tails.
That being said, subtle commentary on the folly of our existence—in particular, our predilection for isolationism—does arise. There's a scene early in the film set in a New Jersey supermarket, looters and chaos abound. Gerry needs albuterol for his asthmatic daughter, but finds the pharmacy guarded by an armed young man, possibly a teenager. At first we think this kid is hoarding all the medicine for himself, but it turns out he's only making sure people don't steal the drugs for recreational purposes. He's looking out for those in need. Contrast this character with a police officer, who doesn't care that Gerry just shot and killed a man attempting to rape his wife—he's just there for some baby formula. There's a clear message here: the officer, as a symbol of 'the old order,' is wrong and selfish, whereas the kid represents the everyday citizen, who now must take care of his fellow man. Simpler still, cop equals isolationism, kid equals communion. I won't go into much more detail about the other examples (no spoilers!), but suffice it to say, every example of isolationism presented by Forster et al result in negative consequences.
Just to make sure you get it, this underlying anti-isolationist message is delivered directly to us at the end of the film. Over a montage of people around the world combating zombies and winning battles, Lane tells us via voice over that the war is far from over, that there is still work to be done, and that the only way for humanity to survive is to join together, regardless of pre-existing differences, and help each other out.
This of course echoes sentiments in Brooks’s novel, though here the message is slipped in under the radar. It's easy to miss, given the nature of the fast-paced narrative and emphasis on action, but it is there.
Since the movie isn't devoid of a moral, I can't argue that it's inferior to the source material, even if the lesson to learn from all this horror isn't quite as pointed as Brooks intended. I can't even say Brooks handled the message delivery better, since Forster's methods are simply the other side of the same coin, a different means of reaching the same conclusion. With the novel, we learn lessons from a story after the fact; with the movie, we learn as the story progresses. Neither supersedes their counterpart.
3. Zombie Carnage
We talked already about the differences between the walking dead in Brook’s book and those seen in the loosely adapted film version—slow and shambling versus fast and, in a way, graceful. But what about actual scenes featuring mindless cannibals doing what they do? Which narrative delivers the violence and gore we’ve come to expect from any fruit dangling from the zombie family tree?
Well, really, the answer is: neither.
Let me explain. As I mentioned before, Brooks keeps his reanimated corpses mostly in the background and focuses on the living. He explores both sides of humanity, the good and the evil, so often the horror in his novel comes not from the zombies’ instincts to hunt, kill and devour, but from the deplorable acts of men and women. There’s a story set in a Kansas church involving ‘mercy killings’ that exemplifies this notion. If you’ve read the book, you know exactly what I mean; if you haven’t, suffice it to say, mankind doesn’t make out well in that vignette.
Even in stories directly depicting zombie attacks, the gore is often left to the imagination. Early in the novel, for instance, a tale from South Africa details Jacob Nyathi’s escape from a horde he never sees up close. The zombies are silhouettes, moaning with raised arms in the distance, backlit by fire from a burning building. As he runs through shanties, he hears the vicious destruction caused by these creatures—clawing, thudding, shuffling and screams. His terror is certainly palpable. We just never actually see it.
Perhaps the most zombie-tastic portion of the book is the aforementioned Battle of Yonkers, a full-on undead assault worthy of anything Romero ever committed to film. Take for example this section, in which soldier Todd Wainio describes what he saw through his helmet monitor, which was networked to all other soldiers’ gun cameras:
...suddenly my eyepiece, and I’m sure everyone else’s, was filled with the sight of blood spurting into a mouth of broken teeth. The sight was from a dude in the yard of a house behind the line...There were five of them, a man, a woman, three kids, they had him pinned on his back, the man was on his chest, the kids had him by the arms, trying to bite through his suit. The woman tore his mask off, you could see the terror in his face. I’ll never forget his shriek as she bit off his chin and lower lip.
Oh hell yeah. But remember, moments like these are few and far between in Brooks’s World War Z. Again, it's Brooks's intent to create satire and social critique, not straightforward horror.
Does the film up the ante on violence? Well...While it's true there are far more attack scenes, and overall the pace is unrelenting and tense, the film isn't all that violent. I mean, it is a PG-13 affair. Many purists will argue that this alone discounts the movie—and in fact, many have: just search "World War Z lacks bite" in Google and see, 1.) how many critics point out the lack of gore, and 2.) how many critics used that obvious article title. I can definitely enjoy a good, nasty zombie movie filled with flesh-ripping, disembowelments, dismemberments, beheadings and all manner of gross things. But I also think it's silly to judge a film based on its lack of violence, particularly when Forster and company offer an interesting and clever reason why the zombies only bite their prey, rather than devouring them completely. I won't spoil it, but trust me, it was solid.
In terms of zombie ACTION, see the film. If it's traditional flesh-eating you seek, read the book.
And The Winner Is...
Honestly, it's a wash. They're just too different to really say one is better than the other. Even if I hadn't liked the film—and I did rather enjoy it—to say it wasn't as good as the book would be like saying Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian was better than The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Both belong to the same family—the western—but they're not blood relatives, and while they have a few things in common, in the end they're quite different and stand on their own merits.
I'm not saying World War Z: The Movie is perfect, it certainly has it's flaws, but for that matter so does Brooks's novel. I felt some of the stories were a tad redundant, and I skimmed a lot of the really technical military stuff, which I appreciated for adding realism to the fantastic text, but which otherwise didn't engage me. This doesn't mean I disliked the book—far from it, I think it's great—and I feel the same about the movie that, however dissimilar, came from that book.
Agree? Disagree? Give us your thoughts in the comments section.
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