The first thing to get out of the way when talking the World War Z movie is the obvious thing: it’s not the novel. Whereas with Hunger Games, say, sure, there’s a lot in the novel that doesn’t end up on screen, and a lot of what does is different, but still, condense the Hunger Games novel and the Hunger Games movie to a one-sentence synopsis, and you’ve got the same thing, don’t you?
Not so with World War Z, unless the way you distill the two versions is “There’s zombies. And that sucks.”
And, with a novel as popular as World War Z, of course there’s going to be legions hordes of fans of the 2006 novel who reject the movie just on principle—“it’s unfilmable”—or maybe because accepting the movie would be a betrayal of the novel.
The trick with the World War Z movie, though, it’s that, since the novel and the adaptation have so little to do with each other, maybe a zombie fan’s heart can be big enough for both.
Which isn’t to say that I think the novel is remotely filmable, don’t get me wrong. I’m not even sure a limited miniseries could get all of that novel on-screen. And, even with an HBO miniseries, still, a lot of the changes that have been made to the novel to let it live at the cineplex, they’d still have to happen. Just because what Max Brooks gave us, it’s a big sprawling, episodic, multi-vocal piece of Stud Terkel-ish journalism, just, instead of being about working-class people, this one’s about the decade’s favorite monster: the zombie. It’s very much the same trick Brooks pulled in 2002, when he made fun of all the Y2K books by substituting zombies for millennium panic. And, it works. Or, I should say, he’s a strong enough writer that he makes it work. What finally sells us on the novel World War Z, it’s not the pseudo-science or the narratives that bolster each other. It’s the geo-political savvy happening so casually on the page.
In the movie version, that savviness that the novel achieved indirectly, it’s all characterized in Brad Pitt’s character. Which is itself a pretty savvy move, just, one that completely alters the story. And, talking the Hollywood formula—I mean, without being too reductive or insulting to Hollywood or the studio system, come on: that’s the model for all storytelling, isn’t it? Every story needs an active, engaged, sympathetic character for whom the thrilling action is personal. And of course we still adhere to Aristotle’s economies: character, time, place. Whereas the novel could sift a decade’s worth of unconnected (except thematically) stories from as many characters and places as it needed, the movie needed some good old fashioned dramatic thrust: a reluctant hero who, in trying to save his family, might just save the world. In a matter of days, and in as few locations as possible. Granted, the movie version has to trade the novel’s retrospection and associated regret and dramatic irony in for that all-important ticking clock. But had it not, I don’t think we would even accept it as a movie.
I mean, sure, I maybe wish our hero here had had to actually accept this call to adventure, as it were (instead of being forced), but, too, in a zombie movie, you always have to be keeping in mind the audience’s need to see scary sequences at the fastest clip possible. Meaning we’ll likely forgive most of the expediencies you try to camouflage, so long as you do actually try to camouflage them, never let them quite show as the contrivances they are.
And, talking zombie stories in general, Max Brook’s World War Z exists in a very weird space: four years into the era of the rage zombie, it managed to actually scare us with those old-fashioned Romero zombies Kirkman’s still using. What’s especially strange is that WWZ has pretty much propped up this whole zombie thing. Never mind that nearly every other zombie story circulating around it—on-screen, at least—is giving the audience the zombie it wants: fast ones. And, as you’ve of course seen from the trailers, that includes WWZ’s own adaptation. Which so cracks me up, as Brooks is such a crusader for A) shufflers B) any zombie that wouldn’t have been in Return of the Living Dead.
However, I’m sure WWZ novel sales are spiking, so he can’t complain, I wouldn’t think. Not that WWZ sales have ever flagged—isn’t it kind of The Dark Side of the Moon of novels, chart-wise?—but more’s always better, I’m sure.
But, no, devoted fans of the novel, whereas the novel, being a Romero story at heart, finally took our own humanity/inhumanity as its dynamo, the movie is, as it probably has to be, simply a survival story. As most rage-zombie stories end up being. Sure, they caution us against the idea of ‘unlimited resources’ and they warn us about overpopulation and they critique us in various ways. But, with the rage-zombie stories, finally what you’ve got is one person running from something hungry that’s not going to get tired, which is an important game of one-upmanship, as persistence hunting has always been our own special thing. But we’re not nearly so special as we thought. And, now, we need to learn to run faster, and longer, and all the time for the rest of our lives.
So it goes, in rage-land.
As for the specific changes happening here, I don’t want to mess things up for you. I will say that, very much like in a Dan Brown novel, there’s chase sequence after chase sequence, there’s more close calls than you can shake a human femur at, and there’s an important mystery to be pieced together, if this especially fetching Robert Langdon can pay the right kind of attention. And, yes, there’s some pretty strong writing in places—really, I was impressed with the dialogue a time or two—and some excellent choreography within those chase scenes, and the effects of course are all just top-notch. And, while there’s finally no Tarman, there is a pretty wicked, huge-eyed zombie that could probably tear Tarman up, finally. And, in what I have to take to be a nod to Return of the Living Dead 3, there’s some very desiccated, yellowish zombies behind glass in an examination room.
But, no, whereas Mutants and Doghouse and In the Flesh, say, are trying on new and improved zombies, the World War Z movie is finally delivering us zombies we’re already comfortable with. Granted, they can mass like ants to get over walls, and they’re Dead Set-fast in a tight hallway, but they worry me, too. Or, no, Max Brooks’ novel getting made into a pretty good movie, that’s what worries me. Just because we, the audience, are always looking for bookends for literary movements, for fads. And, we all agree that this zombie boom we’re in, it started in 2002. Resident Evil and The Zombie Survival Guide and 28 Days Later and maybe Brian Keene’s The Rising (03, I’ thinking?) all kind of snowballed into something that could make it through summer, and beyond. For a decade, zombies have been the go-to monster, the apply-anywhere metaphor. But, man, with Max Brooks there in 2002 and here again in 2013 . . . I don’t know. It makes me nervous for the zombie. And not just because I have another zombie novel coming out. No, I just kind of really like zombies, surprise. Fast ones, slow ones, crawlers, bonies, whatever: they’re fun. I’m not sure I’m well fit for whatever’s next, either. Mummies? Mermaids? I mean, I’m always voting for werewolves, but like I said somewhere else, they don’t really have a high enough scourge index to put the whole world in the proper kind of peril.
Anyway, yes, I think World War Z is going to do well, and deservedly so. It’s exciting, and has a heart, and maybe even some irony, and’s just PG-13. More importantly, it’s a story that works, I think; all those delays got things nailed down tight. And it’ll likely do well enough to prop up this zombie boom for a while longer yet—though hopefully not well enough that a sequel becomes necessary; a “Lost World” here could really erase whatever coolness this first one already has. But, to say it again: no, this isn’t Max Brooks’ novel on the silver screen. This is a zombie movie you probably already know, just, one that happens to have the same name as the Max Brooks novel. If you can handle that, and if you can stomach endings you kind of expect—an ending opposite than what Night of the Living Dead pioneered, say—then you can probably enjoy the movie. But don’t forget you’ve still got the book, either. I’ve read World War Z four times now, I think, and I still haven’t quite shot it directly in the head. There’s even a pretty good chance it’s managed to infect me.