World War Z: A difficult translation of a crazy zombie epic.

Posted on 17 February 2009 by Quaid

I love zombies.  I love the slow, unthinking masses from hell that swarm unsuspecting folk holed up in malls or farmhouses.  While I enjoy movies like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead (2004), I am a bit of a purist.

worldwarz1So when I heard that Max Brooks, author of “The Zombie Survival Guide,” had written a book about a worldwide zombie outbreak, I was excited.  And when I found out it was being turned into a movie, I got jazzed and bought the book.

Just as I suspected, the novel is filled with old-school zombies and their never ending quest for flesh.  These zombies lumber, and they groan, and they won’t stop until their body is 100% incapacitated or their brains are destroyed.

A few pages in to this immense horror epic, though, concern began to wash over me.  How will they ever pull this off in a major motion picture?

The setup of the novel is simple.  We follow a journalist as he interviews survivors from the now 10-year-finished zombie war.  Using this device, we get first-hand accounts of every major event and a great window into how this kind of a conflict would probably play out.  Realism is the name of the game, and the detail Brooks gives about human response to such an outbreak is where 95% of the book’s chills come from.  The interviews start with the first outbreak and end with the final cleanup of the last remnants of zombie-dom.  The novel goes all out, introducing us to all the events and players from the United States President to the captain of a Chinese submarine to a kid in Japan on his computer.  

The greatest thing about the novel, though, is the way it introduces us to the organic evolution of the new warfare geared toward zombies.  There are explanations of why standard warfare failed and the invention of new weapons, new procedures, new thoughts and ideas and phenomena that have never been explored within a zombie universe.  This kind of shit excites be because it is new and fresh within a very stale genre.

worldwarz2But I don’t know how these, my favorite elements of the novel, will translate to film.  Brooks seems so interested in his “what if” premises that he actually takes us into the behind-the-scenes politics of the time.  He shows us the evolution of a wartime society, all with characters waxing philosophical and historical about the events of the past twenty years.  It reads like a fascinating history book with tons and tons of (interesting) exposition.  My big concern, then, is that a filmic adaptation of this would end up being just another zombie movie with lots of battles, jettisoning the nuance of the books in favor of a Night of the Living Dead remake taking place on seven continents.

The other huge challenge with the book is this: there are dozens of narrators, and none of their stories are fully developed and resolved.  In the novel, this works great.  You are allowed, as a reader, to be exposed to a number of different aspects of wartime society without dwelling on any one character.  The “story” is a history and an analysis of social patterns and phenomena.  We never follow one character too long as each one exists to illuminate a specific set of zombie-war-phenomena.  

In a movie, though, I get the feeling we are going to get parallel storylines with a number of key players in the book.  I suspect their story arcs will get fleshed out with backstories, build up, and conclusions.  Within this framework, though, I’m afraid all the great details and academic exploration will be lost.  

The third and final “unfilmable” element to the novel is this: it never follows a three-act structure.  Instead, it follows the honest arc of a real conflict.  Yes, there is the outbreak moving slowly across the globe.  There are the survival stories, and there is even a key moment in which the world decides to “fight back.”  But the last half of the novel recounts how the worlds’ armies systematically reclaim land and set up livable conditions.  It’s more an exercise in careful extermination and city planning…not terribly filmic, but unique and great on the page.  

What are they going to do with this one?  My guess is they will excise the last section of the book and cram the entire “retaking the world” into the last ten minutes.  For forty-five minutes before that, we will get a huge action scene as soldiers fight the first major reclamation battle against the legions of dead and find hope to continue on the long journey ahead.

That isn’t what the book is, though.  So, in the end, I think this is probably going to be a really good zombie movie on an epic scale.  I think I will love it, it will be unique, and it will be more thoughtful than most all zombie movies out there.  But I won’t love it like I love the book, regardless.  Based on the budget they are throwing at this thing (allegedly), it will have to be very cinematic with lots of action scenes, character arcs, and predictable horror cliches.  Which is exactly what the novel avoids.

The screenplay is being written by J. Michael Straczynski, the writer of Changeling…and not too much else, feature film wise.  From what I have heard on the internets, though, the first draft of the script was exceptionally adult and dark.  Very encouraging, but there are a lot of rewrites between now and the film’s shoot.  

Marc Forester is attached to direct, and this makes me breathe a sigh of relief.  We will have a talented, A-list filmmaker at the helm (and not Marcus Nispel).

IMDB says World War Z will be released in 2010, but I have a feeling that might get pushed back.  Because to be honest, this one feels like it’s going to always be centimeters away from falling into development hell.  Fingers crossed it gets done…and with the care and intelligence the novel deserves.                              

2 Comments For This Post

  1. TOM Says:

    you made me depressed with that last sentence>

  2. patirck Says:

    maybe there make it like a documentary, like Ale gores an Inconvenient Truth.

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