I eagerly awaited this week’s release of World War Z, the film based on the Max Brooks novel. The New York Times Bestseller is an oral history of mankind’s war against the zombie apocalypse, written in the style of a report with interviews from survivors all over the world. While American characters are frequently the focus of the story, readers get perspectives from South Africa, China, Russia, South America, and all over the world. The tone is realistic and journalistic. The novel is remarkable in several ways:
- There is no main character. The narrator is almost completely removed from the action. If anything, mankind is the main character. That’s some feat, pulling off a compelling book without someone to root for. But Brooks keeps the tension by making readers wonder how humanity will overcome the challenges from both zombies and from other humans.
- Social commentary. Most zombie stories carry the same moral: what makes humanity special is the ability to reason. Zombies represent humans minus this gift. But World War Z digs a lot deeper into more cutting issues, including America’s dubious role as “world leader,” the savagery that humans will employ to save themselves, and the power of unconventional thinking.
- The novel avoids many zombie clichés. Some elements are common to all zombie fiction: the viral origin, the brain as a target, the general uselessness of conventional weapons, worldwide epidemic. However, Brooks puts his own spin on a lot of things (hint: zombies don’t need oxygen, so the sea ain’t safe!). He did incredible amounts of research, so not only does the novel feel realistic, it is actually based on solid information.
I saw the film this afternoon. My expectations were…wary. First bad sign: a PG-13 zombie movie. I certainly don’t need blood and guts to be entertained. But what makes zombies so fearsome is the visceral way they attack and devour. For a zombie film to be effective, viewers need gore. Sure enough, the film featured lots of cutaway shots and off-screen brain-munching, and was therefore bloodless and only occasionally scary. And from what I saw of the previews, it appeared to have all the soulless sheen of a Big Hollywood Production.
After seeing it, here’s why the film wimped out:
- Main character. The film attempts to make a main character of Brooks’ narrator. Brad Pitt plays the character ably, but there’s not much of interest to him. He’s a generic, Big Hollywood Hero. And the characters around him are totally forgettable. They emerge long enough to move him (and the plot) forward, then die or are abandoned.
- Complete lack of all that cool stuff from the novel. All the edgy stuff from the novel like pharm companies getting rich off of fake vaccines, a snarl of political issues, and the brutal efforts to reclaim the world are all missing. The focus of the film is on finding a cure, so the “war” against zombies never actually happens (or at least viewers never see it).
- The film embraces clichés. Good guy hero with emotional scars, called on to save the world? Check. Worried, ineffectual wife and whimpering daughters to fight for? Check. Swarms of secondary characters, human and zombie, to aid/annoy the hero on quest? Check. Unfunny wisecracks by tough guy commandos to lighten the mood? Check. Disproportionately white cast? Check (Side note: there was only one black character in a grocery store in Newark. Come on!). Overall, the film took every opportunity to make a predictable, safe, Big Hollywood Blockbuster. May the production company enjoy their millions.
I am NOT one who demands that a film adhere strictly to its source material. Many fine films have been made from fine books. Some films are better than their novels. (The Prestige). But everything that made the book an engaging read was eliminated in this film, and that’s what left me disappointed.
The film wasn’t a disaster. Brad Pitt makes the character sympathetic, if not interesting. And I was excited to see Marc Foster at the helm—he’s done great stuff in the past. And his artistic touch was evident in some of the lighting and some intense dream sequences. And the band Muse contributed to the more ambient sections of the soundtrack, and they’re the band to write a soundtrack for the apocalypse. It wasn’t a terrible movie, just a disappointing, wimpy one.
Here’s what I’d love to have seen: a mock-documentary. Make it much, much closer to the novel. It’s not like mockumentaries are unprecedented or even all the unusual to American audiences. It would lack a main character (and a Leading Man Role), so I can see why Big Hollywood would back away from that idea. But I would be riveted to my seat watching a series of interviews serving as voiceovers to the scenes from all over the world. Show me Patient Zero in a peasant hut in China. Show me the massacre at the Battle of Yonkers. Show me zombies, frozen in Minnesota in the winter. Show me the damn underwater zombies, pounding on the submarines! It would not have been an easy film to make, but it would have been a more compelling and much braver one.