Fair Warning: In order to talk about the World War Z film, I need to go into a bit of detail about the plot of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and want to avoid spoilers, you might want to stop reading now.
You would be hard pressed to find a zombie enthusiast community that hasn’t been excited about the upcoming Brad Pitt starring adaptation of Max Brooks’ World War Z. And why wouldn’t they be? All the ingredients are perfect: you have very good book written by a die-hard zombie fan, an A list celebrity star who – while you may not enjoy his tabloid coverage – is indeed a top notch actor who has done very few bad movies, and a big studio is behind it giving it the right budget and resources to create it. I think we can all admit that zombie movies are notoriously bad, and for the most part rarely enjoyed outside of a niche group of diehard fans within the zombie niche genre itself. That said, it looked like we finally had the perfect situation for a zombie movie done right. What could possibly go wrong?
Actually let me back up and briefly catch people up who have never read World War Z (you know, the ones who aren’t so worried about spoilers), or maybe even need a small refresher. The full title of the book is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War; with that in mind it’s easy to surmise that the Zombie War (the titular World War Z) has already happened and that the story of the war is being told by those who experienced it firsthand. The book is series of interviews that come in from survivors who recount stories from the beginning of the outbreak to life after everything has collapsed and humanity is on the brink of extinction. By design, there is no main character and the stories can last anywhere from a few sentences to a traditional chapter length. You could make the case it is nothing but a collection of short stories, but it all ties together both chronologically and thematically to tell a complete story.
The genius of this documentary style book is it covers everything from the futility of modern weapons to survivor stories that leave you feeling utterly hopeless. This is a depressingly logical prediction of how quickly and easily the human dominated world can be undone. Unlike a lot of zombie stories, World War Z tackles issues of practical survival on up to the political and sociological impact of a zombie apocalypse. A lot of the horror in the book comes not from the zombies, but from accounts of survivors who have seen or were forced to do horrible things. These can be personal crimes like cannibalism, or fully-sanctioned geopolitical atrocities that I won’t divulge here because even those of you who aren’t worried about spoilers should have this spoiled for you.World War Z shows us the desperate lengths humanity must go to in order to survive, and how those adapt to become the “new normal”, so to speak. The story is absolutely terrifying in its realistic approach to a fiction problem, and its unique ability to follow that through to the logical extreme. Without giving too much away, one of the most powerful things a story can do to an audience is present it with something truly horrific that goes against everything a person can believe in, and then make them agree that it was the right thing to do. This is the essence of World War Z.
Now let’s get back to the movie that is currently in production. It is, of course, only fair to acknowledge that fans are notoriously difficult to please when their books (including comics) are adapted into movies. It’s rare that a devoted fan is fully satisfied, as you simply cannot fit everything from a book into a movie. For the sake of time and narrative structure, you have to combine stories and characters or simply leave them out. A Hollywood script is somewhere around 115 pages, while World War Z is 342. We’re going to have to expect a lot changes, but the news coming out of the World War Z production goes beyond the norm. So why have the cheers turned to outrage?
Two main reasons:
1. Changes to the Story: Take a look at the official press release from Paramount: “The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.” Remember, the full title of the book is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War; see any problems here? The implication of the press release is that the zombie war is preventable; not only that, but we’re going to be actively rooting for Pitt’s character to stop the zombies before they can cause too much devastation. Instead of examining how our complex world would deal with this problem, it almost seems like they are making an action thriller where the bad guys are zombies instead of the typical evil terrorists. This is such a massive change that you have to wonder why they even bothered to buy the rights to the book, as the entire context of the story has shifted from apocalypse to a disease containment movie like the 1995 movie Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman.
2. PG-13 rating: The powers that be in Hollywood that have not read the book will likely dismiss concern over the ratings issue by writing it off as Zombie fanboys simply craving blood and gore. While you can certainly tell a very good story and lots of action and clever dialog with a PG-13 rating, the simple fact is the horror in this story cannot be watered down to such a rating without losing the tone of the novel. Censoring this story simply cannot be done well, and therefore shouldn’t be done at all. There is a reason why World War Z is so popular, and taking away the parts that made you clench your teeth hoping something like this never happens is diluting the horror to the point where it is no longer effective. The story is gritty and full of never-ending horrors that simply can’t be sterilized to meet such an arbitrary movie rating. Swarms of zombies massacring the world and the horrors must be done to stop them isn’t a pretty story, nor should it shoehorned into one in order to fit a rating.
Hollywood is likely nervous about spending a whole lot of money on a zombie story. It’s an untested model for ticket buyers who have historically preferred mindless cookie cutter predictability like Michael Bay. People say Hollywood is out of ideas, but I disagree. Hollywood isn’t out of ideas; they’re out of courage. Let’s face reality here: it’s obvious the decision makers are not fans of this genre, do not understand the fans, and have most likely not even read the book. They are approaching this adaptation like an accounting problem to be solved as they have nothing but money vested in the idea instead of passion and enthusiasm like the fans do. Corporate Hollywood wants to make a mass appeal movie, but they’re doing so by adapting a book that appeals to a niche market. There’s a pretty massive disconnect there, and the producers are taking some bizarre steps to rectify it.
So why bother making this book into this movie in the first place? It’s clearly got something going for it, as it has crossed over a bit into mainstream and drawn significant critical praise. But it’s still far from a household name. The consensus among fans is that this would have been better off as a HBO or Showtime mini-series (think Band of Brothers or Generation Kill). I simply don’t buy into the idea of a saturated market thanks to AMC’s The Walking Dead. I mean, how many cookie cutter cop and reality TV shows exist? If the property makes money it can be made regardless of who else is doing something similar.
Don’t worry, all is not doom and gloom. While we may be annoyed at seeing Brad Pitt on the covers of magazines wandering the globe with his adopted collection of simple, hard-working indigenous children of… wherever, the fellow is a hell of a good actor who has been in some brilliant movies. And let’s not forget, there are cases where the movie is indeed better than the book, and coincidentally Brad is a star in one of them: Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite writers – and I truly love the book – but I really thought the story worked better in the film. And speaking of Fight Club itself faced a rating issue with the MPAA as it had to be censored to move away from a NC-17 rating. Of course it was still able to capture the essence of the book with an R rating, something I’m concerned won’t happen with World War Z‘sPG-13.
So will World War Z be a good movie? I think it probably will, even if it has little resemblance to the novel. While I think it will be good, I don’t believe it will capture the passion, imagination or loyalty of fans like 28 days Later or Dawn of the Dead have done over time.