CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR WORLD WAR Z*
Book-to-film adaptations can be tricky. You can’t slavishly recreate the original source material, as much as some fans may want you to** — it’s just not feasible. For one thing, trying to fit a 400-page book into a 2-3 hour movie is just not possible without trimming some of the fat. Minor subplots and irrelevant scenes get left out, while some characters are either merged with others or cut out altogether.
World War Z found a very convenient workaround for all that by having almost nothing to do with the source material.
Now before you go accusing me of being one of Those Fans, let me assure you that I tried to come in with an open mind, I really did. I am fully aware that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make a feature-length film out of a series of interviews which are essentially a lot of vignettes tied together by an overarching narrative. There are a couple recurring characters in the book, and there’s a few characters who have connections to others, but overall there’s just too many characters to follow them all and have the film be a cohesive whole. (Plus interviews don’t work well as a narrative in a film that’s not meant to be a documentary.) That’s completely understandable. I walked into the theater expecting a fun zombie flick that would have references to a few recognizable scenes and characters.
I was sorely disappointed.
Oh sure, there’s a couple random characters from the book, and by a couple I mean only three that I recognized. The only one who’s named is Jurgen Warmbrunn, but here he’s only responsible for Israel walling itself off. If you pay attention when Gerry (Brad Pitt’s character) meets him, he mentions a communique from an Indian general fighting the undead, which one can only assume is a nod to General Raj-Singh. As for Gerry himself, my husband is of the opinion that he’s supposed to be the interviewer from the book, based on his previous job and some dialogue about a book he was trying to write. Other than that, none of the other characters show up.
As for events from the book… well, like I mentioned above, Israel imposes a self-quarantine and manages to survive, for a little while at least, by walling itself off and only letting in those who are clearly not infected. And there’s a random nuke that goes off that my husband suspects is a reference to the nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan. Other than that, there’s a couple details in conversations that can easily be missed (for example, when Gerry is asking about Patient Zero, Warmbrunn mentions the illegal organs trade), and that’s about all the connection we get.
And then there’s the zombies.
Max Brooks went the more traditional route with his zombies: slow, shuffling creatures whose bite takes time to turn the victim. The filmmakers seem to have taken their cues from 28 Days Later, with running zombies that turn in 10-12 seconds. This is a perfectly decent choice, and one I can understand; all jokes about out-walking zombies aside, I think we can all agree that a zombie running after its prey is scarier than a shambling one. (My first zombie movie, the Dawn of the Dead remake, scared the ever-loving shit out of me with the running zombies. If there ever is a zombie apocalypse, I’m praying for shamblers.) And when you only have a few seconds to determine whether a person is infected and kill them before they turn, that does decrease your odds of survival. Buuut there’s a few plot holes that the zombies leave in their wake.
First off, at one point it’s stated that airplanes were the perfect way to spread the virus, which completely ignores questions like “What keeps the plane from crashing once everyone is a zombie?” and “How the hell does an infected person get through the airport and onto the plane without anyone noticing?” Speaking of 28 Days Later, I feel like I should point out that the immediate infection is what kept the rage virus from getting out of the UK in the first place. A friend suggested that the movie meant it was a good way to spread the original airborne form of the virus, but considering how quickly a bite can turn a victim, I don’t know if breathing in the virus would be that much slower. At the most you’d have, what, a few hours? And then you turn, infecting the entire plane in the process, and the plane still crashes.
You know what would be a better way to spread the virus? A boat. Get one infected person onto a boat, and with the enclosed spaces and lack of escape options you will quickly have a floating zombie hotel. Then the boat either stalls out and is eventually investigated when it’s reported missing/is discovered (and the investigating crew then turns into zombies), or it runs aground like the ship in Jurassic Park: The Lost World and the horde has a whole new playground to infect.
There’s also the “weakness” that Gerry discovers that allows him and the WHO to concoct a sort of zombie immunization: the zombies only go after healthy victims. (Presumably because they would be the best candidates to spread the virus even further?) Gerry realizes this after witnessing an old man and a malnourished boy be completely bypassed by a rampaging horde. Which doesn’t really make much sense to me – if the virus need perfectly healthy hosts, why are the zombies ripping their victims apart? How do the zombies sense who’s healthy and who’s not? Why did they bypass the guy with the limp, but still go after the person who’d lost a hand? And is it just me or does this sound like a rather silly solution?
There’s a bunch of other stuff that makes it seem like this screenplay wasn’t fully thought-out, like the fact that it appears to take place over the course of a week. (The plot goes something like this: The outbreak happens, Gerry’s family is force into an apartment building; sunrise the next day, they’re picked up by a helicopter and taken to an aircraft carrier, Gerry is sent out on an assignment to find the source of the virus that day; he arrives in Korea at night, leaves that same night; arrives in Israel the next day, leaves that day; spends three days unconscious; wakes up, finds “cure”/camouflage that day; movie’s over and he goes back to his family. I think saying this movie takes place over the course of ten days is being pretty generous.) It’s obvious that the studio bought the rights to the WWZ title so they could get people to come see a generic zombie movie starring Brad Pitt.
Now, that’s not to say this is not an enjoyable movie. There’s interesting characters (my favorite being Segen, she’s awesome), and it was an enjoyable popcorn flick once I viewed it as completely unrelated to the book. The special effects could be a bit ridiculous at times (zombie tidal wave, anyone?), but that kind of added to the charm. It’s just that the title has nothing to do with the content of the film.
* I know, I said the In Theaters posts would be spoiler-free. Sorry, folks, I just have too many feelings about this book and the resulting movie.
** Not me. If I wanted a faithful reproduction of my favorite book, I’d go read the original. Half the fun for me is seeing the source material through another person’s eyes.