Book & Film | World War Z – Max Brooks

A post that compares the book with the film! How exciting. There is always a certain futility in comparing two very different media but not for World War Z, in my opinion, cause the film was bad. Many people complain when a book-to-film adaptation doesn’t stick exactly to the original story,  doesn’t represent something the right way or doesn’t have perfect casting which is, of course, a silly reaction: nobody wants to go to the cinema to see a carbon copy of what they have just read and imagined, but then a film shouldn’t deviate completely from the author’s original vision. In the case of World War Z, I wish the film was more like the novel for many reasons as it didn’t do the book any justice whatsoever – it seems the only link between the two is the fact that they both involve zombies.

Obviously, there will be spoilers. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Obviously, there will be spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I’ll get this out the way, but if you are interested in seeing the film of World War Z, then don’t get your hopes up. It is more of an action hero film than a zombie/horror film, one that masturbates over the improbable and unrealistic activities of one ridiculously good-looking man against the world.

The entire film centres around Brad Pitt’s character as he saves his nauseatingly perfect family (and newly-adopted Latino orphan) from harm in the infected streets of Philadelphia, moves from a safety zone to South Korea to Israel to Wales to get further in finding out how this all originated, and then he single-handedly figures out how to save the world – by locking himself in a room at a research facility (in Wales) and injecting a strain of meningitis into his bloodstream that can camouflage him from zombies, thus enabling a global vaccine to be made to help everybody. Whoopie.

For a zombie film, it is quite revolutionary in that it at least focuses more globally on the ramifications of a zombie apocalypse in comparison to Romero’s films and their various remakes whose attention is wholly on a lone group of survivors in one place whose numbers dwindle till they reach safety. The novel indeed takes a global scale rather than in one location but the necessary multiple perspectives that contribute to the excitement and interest in the book are lost in the film: focalising everything through Brad’s character means that we only experience what he experiences. For a film based on the novel that explains and expresses how and why everything happens from different angles, the film cannot do anything remotely similar because it doesn’t achieve the same polyphony.

In Israel, we get the closest glimmer of the film’s likeness to the book. Jurgen Warmbrunn storms about his office and through the streets of Jerusalem as he parrots some of the novel’s punchy phrases about humanity’s capacity to survive along with humanity’s fallibility, and we get some glimpse to how infection spread and where it might have originated. But it is also here where the film does a total U-turn from the book as Brad awakens to the fact that sick people don’t get done over by zombies and are invisible to them.

Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has. That’s not stupidity or weakness, that’s just human nature

In the novel, there is no such deus ex machina. In the novel, zombies are unstoppable so people have to wait it out, hide themselves away, turn on each other, and maybe, I don’t know, start a full-scale war…? There is no Redeker Plan – the establishment of horrifying imperfect “safety zones” that function purely as centres of human bait. There is no excitement as humanity unites to execute a war of epic proportions. There is no grizzly, ugly side to humanity in the film to counteract the ending’s gratuitous saccharinity. The only hint of any ugliness in the film could arguably be deemed as an Anti-Semitic interpretation, as the Israelites secretly build a massive impenetrable fortress before they alert any other countries to a potential zombie threat, doing every other country over like a kipper to just deal. Very dubious.

Zombie fanboys will know that there are many different types of zombies. You’d at least think they would keep the same type for the adaptation, but no. The book uses the somewhat traditional slow-walking kind, depicted as messy and desiccated, whereas the zombies in the film resemble frantic, rabid monkeys that can run fast and clamber over one another to create colossal human staircases from their sheer numbers. The element of descriptive gore prevalent in the book is absent in the film. The inability of zombies to bleed is at least kept for the film but I believe this lack of bloodiness and violence was done for aesthetic reasons rather than in keeping somewhat to the novel. Additionally, I’m pretty sure I saw zombies being shot in the body and going down where the book emphasises many times that headshots are the only secure way to annihilate them.

The film ought not to have been called World War Z, because there was no world war. There was Brad Pitt running about fresh from his Chanel No. 5 advert saving the world in time for the weekend. The film bore little relation to the impressive canon inspired by the novel and took the pandemic’s aftermath in a disappointing and uncalled for direction.

Sorry, Brad. You look too flawless at 49 to be taken seriously

Sorry, Brad. You looked too flawless at 49 for me to take you saving the world seriously

Indeed, I was looking forward to some of Brooks’ lore. For me, the biggest letdown was this lack of multiple perspectives from individuals in all walks of life dealing with the apocalypse. Where were anybody’s hardships of spending days climbing down a rope of tied-up sheets from their apartment building or spending months starving and scared in the snow? Why weren’t the intricacies of any military’s plans divulged more? Brooks also invents many terms which would have been interesting to include in the film, such as the nicknames given to types of zombies depending on their condition and capabilities among other neologisms. I’m thinking particularly of “Quislings”, people that aren’t actually zombies but are traumatised into convincing themselves that they are.

Though the film is terrible, the novel is surprisingly well crafted. The novel is a diverse collection of testimonies, interviews and monologues of the zombie war from people all over the world in all the continents, “an oral history”, as the front cover says. There are accounts of the pandemic in its nascence right through to the Great Panic, the war itself, and post-war snippets of what the future will bring after such devastation.

Max Brooks has obviously taken painstaking measures to make each account authentic as he considers the implications of the zombie epidemic on geopolitics, economics, cultural relations, trade, the class system and in every conceivable part of human life. He has done his homework and has taken extra credit. One negative thing I would say about the book is differentiating between the narrative voices of each account as many of them blended into the same voice, but overall this does not majorly detract from the novel’s realism.

Realism in a novel about zombies?! Of course you need it! Without authenticity, this would be a forgettable, trashy novel with little to offer except the familiar survivalist fetishisation that comes with most standard low-budget horror movies; it is the realism and its underlying ideology that make World War Z rise above lowbrow pulp. The book often implicitly criticises selfish choices and living in stubborn, vicarious ways that do not consider or accommodate the helping of other people – I’m thinking particularly of the fall of the celebrity citadel near Manhattan and the hikikomori coming to terms with having to actually escape his apartment and use the survival knowledge he spent hours at a computer reading about. Brooks additionally criticises how modern society is not equipped to deal with forces that threaten its existence which makes the devastation all the more authentic:

To be perfectly candid, our supply of talent was at a critical low. Ours was a postindustrial or service-based economy, so complex and highly specialized that each individual could only function within the confines of its narrow, compartmentalized structure. You should have seen some of the “careers” listed on our first employment census; everyone was some version of an “executive”, a “representative”, an “analyst” or a “consultant”, all perfectly suited to the prewar world, but totally inadequate for the present crisis. We needed carpenters, masons, machinists, gunsmiths … In short, we needed to get a lot of white collars dirty.

By including these diverse perspectives and uniting them together into one common goal of eradicating Earth of zombies, one cannot help but get caught up in the motivational rhetoric of the novel and the potential for humanity to do some good. It exposes the hopelessness of modern day quotidian existence and the frustrated desire for people to live more meaningful, exciting lives by taking action and making a difference in the world.

I’m not going to say the war was a good thing. I’m not that much of a sick fuck, but you’ve got to admit that it did bring people together. My parents never stopped talking about how much they missed the sense of community back in Pakistan. They never talked to their American neighbours, never invited them over, barely knew their names unless it was to complain about loud music or a barking dog. Can’t say that’s the kind of world we live in now.

Of course, this is part and parcel of the intrigue in zombie culture. There is the fun escapism involved in guiltily wondering what steps you would take to try and survive a zombie apocalypse, but there is also the promise of utopia and rebuilding society, a ‘brave new world’ that can change what we dislike within our current society.

So, in short, read the book and don’t watch the film. I’m not saying an exact replication of the book into a film would have been a masterpiece either, but sticking closer to the book’s themes, representations and ideology would have produced something less nauseating than what is in cinemas at the moment. Nobody is ever happy with adaptations, but what can you do? As Brad would say from his fragrance advert, it is…



3 responses to “Book & Film | World War Z – Max Brooks

  1. People who watch zombie movies expect to see violence because an apocalypse is violent you would expect to see lots of killing and close calls that’s whats exciting and Its ok for the zombies to be the main focus of a film and even kill all of the cast kinda like the walking dead is doing. Stick to the basics and make the story believeable that’s what people want to see.

  2. Pingback: One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez | The Word in Edgeways

  3. Pingback: The Counsellor | The Word in Edgeways

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