By now everyone has to be familiar with the recently released World War Z film. There were posters everywhere of springy armies of the undead launching themselves at helicopters against a pale sky. There were trailers featuring Brad Pitt looking desperate and heroic. And before all that, there was a novel by Max Brooks of the same name which had little to nothing to do with the film. (Or perhaps did.) To compare the two is to compare oranges to goldfish crackers: both can be eaten as snacks, both have an orange color, but man are they different flavors.
World War Z the film deviates from the book in more ways than you can count. But it’s the fundamental structure change in the movie that might make a Max Brooks fan sit up and take notice. Brooks’ books depicted a nuanced view of a world looking back on a zombie plague that almost ended humanity, told from the varied perspectives of people from every walk of life. The film World War Z instead takes a white-washed view of the end of the world, in which a single western man turns away from violence to save the world. Gone is the multinational flavor of the apocalypse, replaced by a very beatific—and very American—Brad Pitt. And that, above anything else, makes this film a near travesty.
World War Z the novel spends its time exploring the globe. Max Brooks circles the world, telling stories that span from the outbreak of the zombie plague, through the explosion of violence and the horrors that come, and into the gradual resurrection of human society in the aftermath. Stories are told about the psychological, environmental, economic and socio-political ramifications of the near-fall of the world through survivors, with voices coming from every continent. The heroes of Brooks’ World War Z include military generals, doctors, political figures, and downed pilots, and they come from every walk of life imaginable. This allows the novel to step outside the American-centric view that can come out of books produced in the United States and for that reason feels weightier and more effective.
By contrast, World War Z the film is a linear fluff ride, a typical zombie destruction film that crosses the worst of a Roland Emmerich world-crusher flick with a fast-zombie adventure. If that was all that it was, divorced from the context of the book with which it shares a name, maybe its content wouldn’t demand so much scrutiny. But putting the two side by side is a baffling comparison, making a fan of the book wonder if the production team was reading the same bestseller. You get the feeling that the writers missed the point of the book entirely by streamlining the plot into the single story of a typical male action hero. World War Z was not about a single man solving the problems of the world. But then, this is Hollywood. What other formula could there be?
It’s that very formula—a lone, everyman hero takes on a tremendous problem that threatens the world, all to protect his helpless family—that stunts and insults the memory of the Max Brooks narrative. Gone are the multi-racial, multicultural representatives of over a dozen stories who struggled against the zombie menace in their own ways. In their place is the story of the least likely everyman, Gerry (played by Pitt), whose privileged western self needs to travel to other countries to discover the one thing that can deliver everyone, in every country, from disaster. He’s supported in all this by his damsel-in-distress wife and daughters—the typically exploitative emotional crux of his narrative—as well as a cast of token multi-national characters who prove themselves ineffectual in the extreme. There’s his hand-wringing boss in the United Nations, the witty and quickly murdered MIT virologist, the wily Mossad agent, and the stern but hopeless Italian doctor. Even the most interesting sidekick in the film, an Israeli soldier named Segen, must be rescued by Gerry and ferried to safety before she disappears into the backdrop.
The film even goes one step further with its heavy-handed message, embarrassingly trying to tackle one of the book’s core themes and falling flat on its face in the effort. Brooks’ book provides us with a world that has to pull together to survive, a lens that turns the book away from the typical “shoot the zombie” answer you get with most undead fiction. The movie tries to hook into that message but in the most gloriously naïve fashion: Pitt simply diverts from the typical Hollywood model by eschewing violence at every turn. He is the action hero who lets those around him do the killing (and dying), while he suffers nobly to rescue humanity from the throes of violence and terror. This is the apologetic action hero, one responding to the years of criticism of glorified violence in cinema with a passive, hurt stare and horror in his eyes. Pitt couldn’t look more beatific as he watches the tragedy unfolding around him. In every scene where the zombies rip people shreds, Pitt seems to look on and say: see, see what violence brings? Just more violence. But I know better! Violence isn’t the answer. I gave that up and so should you. Only Gerry can save us in his superior, glorious smugness.
The creeping insinuation that violence is wholly to blame for the end of humanity reaches an epic level of preaching with the devastation in Gerry’s wake. In the worst example of book rewriting, Gerry is on hand as Israel is besieged by the undead and ultimately overthrown. In the book, Israel is one of the few countries to get through the war largely intact, due to abandoning the Palestine territories and taking extreme proactive measures to quarantine itself against the zombie threat. Yet the film chooses to upend this, all so that the mighty westerner Gerry can escape from the nation dramatically and carry the secret of salvation with him. The political implications of watching Arab and Israelis massacred by zombies after singing a song about peace is way off-message from the spirit of the book and frankly way more meta than the film has any right to be.
Compared to the book, the film’s narrative is insufferable and overbearing. It panders to the ego, trying to show that if we all just learn the lessons of Brad Pitt’s Gerry and work together peacefully, we can be better than those horrible others that bring violence and death. And who are these others, these backwards people? Why, everyone else in the world, being consumed and consuming in a faceless, ocean-like hoard of death. It’s anyone who doesn’t understand that violence isn’t the answer. But don’t worry, folks, Gerry’s coming to show them the way.
How well does the world learn the lesson? I guess we’ll get a chance to find out, as the studio’s already planning a sequel.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.