This weekend, after an infamously troubled production and a crap-ton of reshoots on the back end, World War Z opened up in theaters second to Monsters University, and amidst a crop of mixed and muddled reviews. The story of a world overrun by shambling hordes of the undead and the tribulations endured by those who survived, World War Z was an acclaimed novel by Max Brooks, the author of the likewise wildly popular Zombie Survival Guide. The film adaptation, which has been in the works for years, has faced more than its share of hurdles on its way to the screen. In all honesty, the decision of whether or not you should check this one out comes down to what you’re looking for out of the film.
On one hand, if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of Max Brook’s acclaimed best seller, odds are you’re going to be disappointed. The adaptation takes such vast liberties with the source material that ultimately I’m hesitant to even call it an adaptation, and it widely, even laughably misses the mark in keeping the novel’s themes and mood intact. I’m hesitant to even call it World War Z, something in me wants to keep going with Brad Pitt’s Pretty Good Zombie Movie.
But that seems rather flippant and disingenuous considering I actually enjoyed the film quite a bit. Coming from someone who’s a rabid fan of the novel, if you can divorce your expectations from your experience with Brooks’ epic, you’ll probably find something to like, even to love in the proceedings. Also, I can’t help but give an endorsement to a movie that had me on the edge of my seat for half of its runtime telling myself that “If something else horrible happens to [favorite character] I’m going to hunt down the screenwriters and egg their goddamn houses.” So where does this adaptation miss the mark?
Well, slight spoilers ahead:
There’s no Magic Bullet
This is a key tenet of the novel, the fact that there’s no miracle cure to the zombie plague. It gets repeated over and over in the opening chapters (not to mention throughout the entirety of the Zombie Survival Guide) and when Brooks thinks that we’ve had it hammered far enough into our skulls, he neglects to mention it entirely. The point being that there is no easy solution, no quick way out of the tiger pit humanity has dug itself. The war in question is destined to be a murderously long affair with a catastrophic body count. The film nails the body count, but since nearly the whole film is spent searching for a cure to the plague (a search which, if we follow the rules of the novel, is futile) we can say with confidence that the book and the film diverge on more than a few key points.
Only Brad Pitt can save us all
Again, we come back to the fact that one of the points of the novel is that there isn’t any single nation that can win this war for anyone else, let very well alone a single person. It’s a pastiche, a collage of voices that show us how people all over the world are handling the plague in their own way. By letting Brad Pitt be the Very Most Important Dude in the war, it diminishes the efforts of everyone else around the world. In fact, the film only gives us brief insights into the ways different countries are dealing with the plague. We have an extended sequence in Israel, who have reacted in much the same way they did in the original story, and Wales, who seem to have taken the Shaun of the Dead approach of staying indoors and having a spot of tea until it all blows over. Aside from a brief interlude at a military base in South Korea, the sight of a mushroom cloud, and the presence of a U.N. armada, we get very little of the rest of the planet. World War Z might have worked better as a miniseries, as, let’s be realistic, there was no way in the nine hells they would have ever fit all of the source material into a single film. If they had tried, I’ve no doubt the result would have been unwatchable.
The aspect of World War Z that works in exactly the way as the original novel is the human element. Call me a sap, but they laid out the bait in the opening with Pitt’s family and I bit hard. As I mentioned earlier, I found myself emotionally invested in the cast of characters World War Z laid out for us, to the extent that I was willing to overlook a few painfully forced stupid decisions by Pitt’s character once the last act of the film rolled around.
Maybe the best way to highlight the differences between the film and the book is the way they present their zombies. The film is not the slow paced, grueling war story that Brooks’ novel is, it’s more a fast-twitch globe-hopping thriller. It still racks up a body count, however, and it’s still got a lot of heart. In retrospect, it might be folly to even call this an adaptation, seeing as only a few core concepts survived the transition from the novel to the screen. It’s more of a companion story, a different riff strained from the same core conceits of the novel. More reimagining than adaptation, World War Z is most certainly not Max Brooks’ novel brought to life, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time.