Last Thursday I went to go see Brad Pitt save everyone from zombies with his sheer Brad-Pittness in an adaptation of the classic book World War Z. Now, I was warned walking in that this was not my father’s World War Z. Which was interesting, since the book came out in 2006. So while I credit my dad with introducing me to a ton of books, mostly Stephen King, this wasn’t one of them. I think I introduced him to it.
In any event, this took the central idea of the book... zombies... and the title... World War Z... then threw out the plot, structure, characters, and zombie type. Instead of slow moving Romero-type zombies, here we got fast moving, Rage-like zombies. For those not familiar with the zombie literature and fiction, there are two types of zombies: those that are undead and move slowly, like in a George Romero film or in The Walking Dead, or fast moving zombies that are people infected with a plague such as in 28 Days Later or some of your more recent adaptations. The debate over which one is “right” has been going on for years and caused fan divides not seen since the early, dark days of Babylon 5 vs. Deep Space Nine, or Star Trek vs. Star Wars back before J.J. Abrahms was able to unite us all in harmony.
I’m a big fan of World War Z, the book, not because it was recommended to me by all my purist, intelligent, Romero-Style Zombie loving friends. The structure was interesting, and rather than focusing on a single outbreak and a single group of survivors holed up in a prison, shopping mall, or whatever, it took the idea that after the war Mel Brooks’ son (No, seriously) would travel around the world chronicling the zombie invasion, and how it ended up changing the world. It was a novel approach, different ideas were introduced, some good (Zombies froze in the winter), some bad (bombs were useless against zombie because I guess the undead have super-brains that can’t be damaged. I guess Max Brooks never took a moment to look up what a Traumatic Brain Injury was.)
World War Z, the book, would have made a horrible, horrible movie.
Think of it this way: Take everything you love about your favorite movie. Now take that away, and instead of, say, John McClane pulling a gun off his back, shooting at Hans Gruber then throwing him out the window, you got to hear a historian describe it, and maybe some “home-made” footage or something that was meant to be a reenactment. That’s a lot of what World War Z the book movie would have been, a lot of historians talking about the zombies, maybe a few scenes with zombies, but the people talking to either 1) made it out alive because they were talking to you or 2) weren’t really part of the story until afterwards when they got their Zombie Science Degrees from Brad Pitt University.
Works great as a book, in book form. But as a movie, a lot of people would be sitting there, waiting for the zombies to just attack already, and stop the zany music. Plus the time a book takes to develop into a great story would be cut down to two hours, it would just feel like four because we’d cut to a talking head every time a good zombie attack would start.
The movie itself was pretty decent. While I joke about the plot and stuff, it did manage to keep the “Zombie invasion on a global scale” part pretty accurate, and it wasn’t like Brad Pitt was running around trying to save the day just in his hometown or the hometown he was visiting and reuniting with his long lost love while fighting zombies. (Movie idea: Brad Pitt is stuck in a town and has to reunite with his high school girlfriend while fighting zombies.) He really was travelling the world to see how different people were fighting the upcoming zombie attacks. Also, it didn’t try to be cool like some movies and dance around the fact that these were zombies. The word “Zombie” is spoken about 20 minutes in.
While I’ve spent most of my time on World War Z, this is a larger literary problem: Book vs Film. I’d rank that one up there even greater than the Babylon 5 vs. Deep Space Nine debate. (That debate boils down to this: Sorry us Niners got to watch a show with decent special effects, and don’t have to tell people to power through a crappy first season, Babylon 5 people.) The thing is, books and movies are very different mediums. Yeah, they can share a lot, but the second you take that book out of a readers hands, you start to lose something that can’t be up on the screen. Or if you’ve read the movie first, you start to put something on paper that is directly influenced by the movie.
Let’s take one of my favorite books, Empire Falls by Richard Russo. (I’ve been at this for a year and a half and I haven’t mentioned Empire Falls. That’s not good.) A few years back, HBO made Empire Falls into a movie. I was skeptical but I thought, “hey... I’ll watch it.” Then I remember the first bit of casting news were Ed Harris and Helen Hunt. They were so far beyond the characters in my head that I almost abandoned the prospect. Then they got to another one, Philip Seymour Hoffman for the town’s mysterious rich guy who built a house, fought a dead moose, and had an affair with Ed Harris’ mother. (Spoilers for an old book that was turned into a movie almost 8 years ago.) Then I got to thinking... that was perfect. If I was making a movie of the book, that’s the character I saw in my head! Now, the rest of the movie is debatable, but that one little win allowed me to watch it in an interesting and different fashion. It didn’t take away from the book for me, but this one casting thing caused a connection that allowed me to associate the two, but treat them as different entities.
Let’s take another famous adaptation: The Hunger Games. A large driving force of Hunger Games: The Novel is the fact that most of it happens with Katiniss’ internal monologue going on in her head. The movie loses all of that. Now, I enjoyed Hunger Games: The movie, for different reasons, mostly the interesting debate of how a novel that is largely a critique on exploiting children by putting them in violent situations is made into a movie that exploits children by putting them into violent situations. But that’s another post. The bottom line is I’m able to separate the two, and enjoy the two for what they are. I think that’s important when reading any book vs. film adaption.
I could go on. The debate rages on and has raged on probably since the first time an ancient Greek scroll was adapted for the big stage with a chorus. (I believe it was the Adventures of the Man who would Not Die Hard, and featured the classic story of a man stuck on Mt. Olympus during a theft gone wrong.) I’m not going to solve it here. But with The Great Gatsby and World War Z already passed, and the next Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, and Divergent headed to the screen soon, I have a feeling that the debate will continue for quite some time.