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From page to screen: World War Z

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Reading time: 6 minutes

The ‘From page to screen’ series takes a look at the journey of a piece of writing (be it novel, non-fiction, play etc.) to the screen and other manifestations.

This is the third in series (take a look at Gomorrah and Let the Right One In). In this instalment, we’re exploring Max Brooks‘ 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

A sprawling zombie creation with an innovative, original style, WWZ was a breakout bestseller for the post-apocalyptic horror genre. Selling over a million copies worldwide, it was picked up by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and became a 2013 film of the same name, starring Pitt himself.

But the transition from page to screen wasn’t a straightforward one.

The novel

The follow-up to Max Brooks’ successful The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z saw a change in style and ambition for its author (son of comedy legend Mel Brooks). The Zombie Survival Guide was a detailed and well thought out (to the point of commendable obsession) handbook for the fictional, paranormal event of a worldwide zombie apocalypse. In short, The Zombie Survival Guide is a niche book. Doctrinal for fans, although reaching not much further.

The obsession behind its creation birthed World War Z, essentially zombie literature’s Huckleberry Finn. A meandering yet pacey story, World War Z’s central character is an unnamed reporter. A conduit. Stated as being ten years after the start of humankind’s fight back, World War Z isn’t clear in quite how stable the world remains, though it’s obviously a lot safer than the events on its pages recall. Brooks’ story critiques an infighting and self-concerned globe, almost decimated by the pandemic.

Told in short, conversational prose, the focus is on an interviewer talking to many people. All unique apparitions, surviving spectres, speaking through this one person – uniting a globe of voices who often disagree. World War Z covers the aftermath, the despair, the desolation. It’s unsurprising to hear Brooks was inspired by 1985 Pulitzer prize winner The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel.

The full title of Brooks’ novel (often shortened to just World War Z) is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Immediately noticeable for fans of the genre, is Brooks’ willingness to use the Z word. It is or was before his book, most unusual for fiction writers to use ‘zombie’. Perhaps this is for fear of taking the reader out of the environment constructed so painstakingly for them by associating their story with every other zombie fiction or film.

What Max Brooks did was play to that knowledge, setting World War Z on an earth fully aware of what zombies are (in theory). That the characters acknowledge it and go on to argue about whether zombie is the right word, is a masterstroke.

World War Z really excels in the level of intricacy and detail of its global viewpoint. Our scribe presents experiences, stories and anecdotes of everything from the economic fallout to the political, personal and war-like experiences the dwindling human race suffered under undead oppression. Literally visiting the extreme ends of the world, Brooks’ writer presents a gamut of opinion on the world’s predicament.

The skill involved in believably conveying so many distinct characters’ words with differing ages, cultures, opinions and experiences is astonishing. Superlative, even, no matter the genre the writing appears in. Research must have taken an age to hammer these characters into individual, bespoke hooves with which to travel the story. Brooks is a man with many voices, creating a narrative arch from a patchwork quilt.

World War Z might not sound like it’s for everyone and it isn’t. However, Max Brooks has created a novel, a story and a world of sufficient genius to grab many more readers yet still. This is not good writing of a bad book. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a well written, serious story with layers of obvious global subtext which uses zombies to entertain and intravenously infect our awareness.

It’s clear Brooks knows his work’s power lies in sincerity, in being defiantly believable in the face of the absurd. World War Z was always going to be a hard piece of writing to bring to the screen.

The film

World War Z, the impossible film. A many armed beast, writhing with intricacy and detail but full of vastly different characters and timelines which never overlap – how did the story, the essence of Brooks’ book, survive on screen?

This is debatable, though there is more of the book in the film than just the one character, an Israeli spy, as Brooks claims.

The kind of creativity and lateral thought needed to turn a challenging novel to into a successful cinematic experience is a soul-destroying rarity for the mere mortal.

World War Z was acquired after a bidding war by Plan B Entertainment in 2007. It seemed up to the job as the company has a good record of backing excellent cinema: The Departed, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Kick Ass.

While directors came and went, the final choice of Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball) was promising enough. Employing many screenwriters over a protracted period, was less so. Well publicised re-shoots, replacing an entire, expensive final conflict, were very much not a good omen. In short, World War Z‘s journey to the screen was a problematic one.

Much like other literature with a small, but fervent fan base, the interest among the novel’s admirers was vocal and opinionated. However, even if every one of the million copies sold of World War Z brought their friends and family to see the cinema release, it was going to have to attract more than just the hardcore. In short, the film needed to appeal to a broader audience. Max Brooks was less than optimistic:

I cannot guarantee the movie will be the book they love. And I’m in no position to tell people to see this movie or not see it. If I’m asked I say: See the movie as a movie and judge it as a movie.”

The final plot concerns Pitt’s character Gerry Lane – a United Nations investigator – cooked up to be the film’s needle, weaving his way through the patchwork fabric of the original text’s story. Where possible, that is. World War Z boasts the usual big budget zombie tropes: outbreak, onslaught and fightback. Almost $200m production costs also meant it wasn’t made on a shoestring.

While the film doesn’t in any way reflect the strength of the novel, that myriad of tales would have been hard to replicate faithfully. Particularly in a summer blockbuster which needed to recoup such large sums, then add profit. Unfortunately for the die-hard World War Z fans, they were going to have to accept that. The first bone of contention was the zombies – always a divisive issue. Forster’s film has the undead move more like 28 Days Later’s infected, rather than Brooks’ more ‘classic’ zombie.

The apparently straightforward plot (essentially Brad Pitt travels the globe attempting to save humanity while getting into scrapes with the undead) was also contentious. Though this is where the film stays closer to the book than immediately obvious.

It would be almost impossible to jump around the globe without motive other than to report on events gone by, bordering on nonsensical. World War Z‘s screenwriters knew that there needed to be urgency – i.e. the film’s timeline running concurrently with the war.

Gerry Lane essentially becomes Brooks’ unnamed reporter and his job as an investigator makes him central to the battle. The need for him to solve this global crisis involves him travelling the world, in which he visits many of the locations mentioned in the novel. The film also includes lots of small pieces of information, working as little nods hinting cleverly and subtly at the grander scale taken directly from the text.

World War Z isn’t the same as its titular book. But it couldn’t be, for many of the reasons a lot of literature cannot simply be transplanted to cinema. On screen it’s to be seen as a movie, separate from, but related to the novel. Plan B Entertainment came out of the ordeal reasonably well, its film made half a billion dollars and has garnered a sequel with David Fincher involved.

Perhaps best, and most surprisingly, even Max Brooks liked it:

I was expecting to hate, it and I wanted to hate it because it was so different from my book, and yet the fact that it was so different from my book made it easier to watch… So I was just watching somebody else’s zombie movie, which was fun and intense.

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