The Issue with World War Z

After the release of the World War Z trailer one of our writers considers what the trailer says about the adaptation of Max Brooks' novel.

Thursday November 8th saw the release of the first full trailer for the Marc Forster/Brad Pitt adaptation of Max Brook’s zombie epic World War Z.

As a fan of the novel, surely I should have met the trailer with anticipation rather than anxiety. But alas, it was not to be. If anything, my reservations were finally confirmed as, based on this brief footage, it is apparent that the film has veered waaaaaaaaay off course to the point where calling it World War Z seems like a redundant exercise.

But Luke, I hear you say, aren’t you jumping the gun, basing this statement on what is only a two minute trailer? Well, yes and no. To explain…

My love for the original novel knows no bounds. It works as a piece of great pop-fiction whilst also delving into the psychology of not only a different culture but to the human race as a whole, the worldwide zombie outbreak being the backdrop to make some profound statements. So good is it, in fact, that it sits with the likes of James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. Its ability to elevate itself to being so much more than the general yarns found in the horror section of your local Waterstones is astonishing.

This writer’s gushing aside, general consensus also showered it with praise so it was obvious that a movie adaptation would be in the works sooner or later. Back as early as 2008 (the novel was released in 2006) Brad Pitt had bought the movie rights and Marc Forster (who would go on to make Quantum of Solace, released later the same year) was signed up to direct.

And then, word dried up.

This isn’t the first time word of a movie adaptation for a book I love has suddenly come to a halt (I’m still waiting for Neil Jordan’s movie version of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box) but the signs here were really quite promising. A script was already written by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, a review of which showed up on Aint It Cool to great applause, so what was the issue?

Unsurprisingly, the beginnings of what would drown the film in development hell for close to two years stemmed from parent studio Paramount Pictures. The issue was with Straczynski’s screenplay which, while lauded, placed a heavy emphasis on the human story and, most crucially, retained the format of the novel, in which a fictionalised Max Brooks interviews survivors and key players involved in the zombie war.

For reasons that have never fully come to light, Straczynski’s draft was thrown out completely, with Matthew Michael Carnahan (brother of The Grey’s Joe) brought in to do a complete rewrite. The most drastic changes, at the insistence of the studio, were the timeframe, as the new draft placed the film in the present, and the excising of the novel’s format in favour of a more action orientated race-against-time-to-save-the-human-race motif.

Below is the official synopsis released a few months ago:

“A U.N. employee (Brad Pitt) is racing against time and fate, as he travels the world trying to stop the outbreak of a deadly Zombie pandemic.”

Bull. Fucking. Shit.

At what point in the novel is there a single central character thread detailing the plights of one individual as he races to save humanity? The main outbreak itself only represents the first third of the novel, with the remainder detailing the struggles of mankind and the desperate measures used to fight “Zach” and win what is colloquially referred to as WWZ.

Hell, so bad is the pandemic that the entire infrastructure of the planet has changed to accommodate the still very real threat of another possible outbreak (in a neat moment, one survivor talks about permanent armed beach patrols, whose job it is to exterminate any undead that walk out of the surf).

That’s not to say we wont see these tropes in the film, yet it’s the tonal shift here that bothers me. Whilst the trailer does detail some suitably epic moments, the grounding of these events with one (unsurprisingly American) protagonist undermines the very nature of the global scale the catastrophe instigates. Sure, disaster movies show the world at peril but it’s always one man, or group, whose job it is to save Earth. This is one of the key things to why the novel works; the fictional version of Max Brooks is effectively faceless, just a journalist without gender or nationality wanting to portray the sense of worldwide horror and awe during the events of WWZ.

It only takes a two minutes trailer to tell us they’ve jettisoned this entirely. However it appears that this is not the only key trope from the novel that has been scrapped. Firstly, the movie zombies are sprinting. The novel had the traditionally slow undead. Secondly, Pitt’s character is racing against time to find a cure. In the novel, a cure is never found. The zombie menace is merely dealt with, with measures in place to ensure it never happens again. Thirdly, in the novel the war lasts in excess of ten years. Word has it the timespan of the film is a few weeks/months (though don’t quote me on that). Most importantly though, is the novel’s perception of how different nationalities and their cultures dealt with the pandemic differently. Admittedly, it is yet to be seen whether this is retained in the film but at this stage, I find it somewhat unlikely.

It is obvious some concessions have to made when adapting a text to film. I have no beef with, say, condensing characters, excising sub-plots or altering character motivations, as the medium of film is far more restrictive than that of a book. What I object to are changes that are so far removed from the novel that it hardly resembles the source material at all (see The Lost World: Jurassic Park). The fact that problems with the production are still ongoing (tension of set, more re-writes, a massive seven weeks of reshoots) does not bode well either.

These are, however, grand assumptions based on what little has actually been seen of the end product. As it stands, I feel that the novel’s potential, and its moral message and critique of mankind will be lost amongst large set-pieces and Brad Pitt’s golden locks blowing in the breeze. Even the horde CGI looks terrible.

If they manage to pull a serviceable film out of this cluster fuck it’ll be a surprise. In the interim, I whole-heartedly recommend you buy a copy of the novel if you haven’t read it already. The book, at least, is a modern masterpiece.

If they fuck up the battle of Yonkers, I’ll be furious.

Haven’t seen the trailer yet? Watch it below!

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