Thu
Jun 27 2013 10:00am

World War Z and Happy Endings

World War Z

The movie version of World War Z is a pretty solid translation of the book World War Z. I’ve heard some people didn’t like it? Alex gave it a pretty big blah. Personally, though, I think it worked, because it focused on the spirit of the text, rather than the letter of it. It certainly worked for me as an audience member, and as a film, an adaptation, and a tweak on the nose of the genre. Part post-apocalypse, part plain old zombie flick, and part New Macho action-adventure—in which the sensitive family man retired UN investigator is the tough guy—I think a lot of the shade being thrown at it is undeserved and ultimately I think that the choices the movie made are absolutely in keeping with the themes of World War Z, the book. I’ll tell you why. Be warned that I’m going to talk fairly loosely about spoilers—not specific ones, but rather the big arcs and movements of the film.

First and foremost, I think that telling an entirely original story for the film is a perfect direction to take things. World War Z, the book, is an oral history. A collection of shorter stories, told as anecdotes, that paint a broad canvas and allow the reader to piece together a big picture. Something like that is hard to translate to the screen—an ambitious director could have tried, especially if she or he could have made it a mini-series rather than a film—but I don’t have any problem with the decision to follow a single protagonist. For me, that is completely in keeping with the tone of the book. I didn’t see it as trying to be “this is the entirety of the book, translated to screen,” but rather vice versa: “what you see on the screen could be one of the stories in that book.”

World War Z

The downside of this approach is that the movie never quite makes up its mind about Brad Pitt. He’s a cross between an Everyman and a hyper-competent disaster survival specialist, which is tricky to pull off. They aim for “just a regular guy with a unique set of skills,” but they ended up missing the mark a bit and hitting the trope of a featureless protagonist. Yes, he loves his family, and crying little kids is always a good kick in the ribs (just ask Children of Men, which used that trick to the point of abuse) but other than the fact that he retired to be with his family, we don’t know or discover much about him. Navidson, from House of Leaves, is a similar cipher, but that book plays on his obsession and family ties to tell a story about him. If you asked me to tell you anything about Gerry (Brad Pitt’s character) besides his job and his family, I’d come up blank.

World War Z

The structure of the novel, however, definitely informs the movie version, and for the better. The family is not just trying to escape Philadelphia in the middle of a zombie outbreak; they hit a range of high points—apartment buildings, drug stores, military bases—before separating from Brad Pitt’s character. At that point, Pitt pinballs back and forth between locations; from an aircraft carrier to South Korea, to Israel, to Wales. Not quite the breadth of the books—which includes, you know, underwater as a major location—but it does show that the scope of the concern is global. Here is meets characters that widen the film’s appeal by providing new angles through which to view the story: the bald headed Segen helps dilute the overly macho cast by having a tough female character who brings a military viewpoint, and the cast of the WHO play a convincing spread of paranoia and bravery from the perspective of the medical establishment. Moreover, Brad Pitt’s character visits these places for intelligible reasons. In a world of Nolans and Shyamalans, it is a real relief to have a movie where people’s behavior isn’t utterly obfuscated and stretched thin to cover up plot holes.

World War Z

You know from the start—just by the fact that the book you are reading is a history of the zombie war—that humanity wins. I quoted Marvel’s Ultimate Galactus a while back, but a different part of that story sticks out to me now, in this regard: after facing down a huge, extinction level event, Nick Fury says “the human race can kick the hell out of anything.” Which brings me to the crux of the matter, for me: the film version of World War Z had a happy ending. I’ve heard rumors that the original ending was as banal and grim as I’ve come to expect from these end of the world flicks; a paean to nihilism that shows just how “adult” it is by engaging in a juvenile display of feel-bad storytelling. Oh, you’ve commodified women’s sexuality, how bold! That is sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell over the sound of my eyes rolling all the way back in my head and rattling in my skull. Remember the mess that was 28 Days Later’s third act?

A happy ending is important to World War Z, because the book has a happy ending. Humans win; they win because humans are clever and zombies are stupid. They win because people get organized and communicate. They win, in essence, because humans are the best they can be. In a post-apocalyptic setting, it is easy to show humans acting at their worst. We see it in the film of World War Z during the looting and in the cold, hard decision made in evicting the protagonist’s family from the military ships when they lose contact. There the bad side makes its appearance, but here is where World War Z steps up its game: that isn’t the only side of humanity we see.

World War Z

In both the book and the film, we see that there is plenty of room between relentlessly grimdark and innocent naivety. There is a vast middle ground where people can work together and use their brains to change the world. Between the ape and the angel, so to speak. We’ve heard the adage that there will only be peace on Earth when there are aliens for humans to join together and fight. Well, in World War Z those “aliens” are the dead, and while zombies sure take a bite out of the human species, the human species regains its footing. That is verisimilitude for you. Humans behaving…like humans. To me, that concept is central to the book, and I think the film captured it—which is far more important to me than hitting any particular plot point from the novel.


Mordicai Knode wants you to leave him behind if he gets bit. Don’t mercy kill him; he might get better or become a Zombie King, you don’t know. You can find him on Twitter and Tumblr.

24 comments
delascabezas
1. delascabezas
I 'm with the Oatmeal on this:
http://theoatmeal.com/comics/wwz

I agree there are common threads from an exposition standoint, like there are in any well directed or written zombie story since Romero took off his gloves (and even before, in some pulpy cases).

IMO the movie sucked, taken in the context of the book. Taken as a thing itself, what you are saying has merit, but that is neither what I was hoping for, nor why I went to see it.
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
It is also really just nice to get to watch a zombie flick where the people aren't constantly morons. I had to stop watching The Walking Dead for that reason.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
1. delascabezas

Really? I don't think an attempt to literally make the book would have made a good movie, ultimately. I guess you could make it a fake documentary, but then you end up losing a lot, like...any emotional investment from the audience. I think the fauxumentary style could make a good mini-series or TV show, like I said, but I'm totally into attempting to capture the spirit of the thing rather than the text of a thing as an interpretive style.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
On one hand, I agree with you and I enjoyed the film while it was playing out there was a nice horror dynamic and the tour of the world was a good way to show the gloabality of the disaster.
I hadn't known that it was (at one point anyway) supposed to be a trilogy and so the ending seemed abrupt to me. It was a kind of happy ending. Pitt is reconnected and does discover a weakness in the zombies and we see humanity starting to fight back. It felt to me that it very much wants a sequel to complete the set up.
If there were a sequel, I would go see it as I did find it interesting. Just, not quite all there.
Christopher Bennett
5. ChristopherLBennett
This defense of the WWZ movie reminds me of my defense of the I, Robot movie. That movie isn't directly based on the book, no, but the book is a collection of nine different stories about Susan Calvin and positronic robots, so it's really more the blanket title of a series than the title of a specific story. The movie wasn't trying to adapt the book so much as to be a companion piece to it, or in that case a prequel.
delascabezas
6. delascabezas
The "spirit of the thing" was that modern society is our downfall, but we need it, and technology to take back everything fromt the zombies. I agree that it is _great_ that the "idiot-in-a-crisis" idea was not substantiated, but they could have easily the movie in several parts, and covered all the vinettes in meaningful ways (one movie about the fall, one about the retaking, one about the rebuilding). If they can make (how many goddamn Fast and Furiouseres?) worse movies in more parts, this would have done fine.

The movie (as it stand)s cuts out all the key elements that made it stand out as a book - the failure of the modern millitary machine, the collapse of societies into selfishness and selflessness warring against each other, the bleakness of total war, the modern interdependence chains and how quickly they are broken (and are generally taken for granted), and just how goddamn stupid most people are when it comes to how the world works. The fact that even in victory against something like that, there is huge loss is one of the key thrusts of Brooks' book, IMO.

I strongly disagree with the "happy ending makes good" take. The book is positive in spirit (we can learn from our mistakes) but realzstic in exposition (we are a moronic species that forgets the past within living memory, sometimes longer if things are really, _really_ bad). Regardless of wether the issue is zombies, pandemic, worldwide water shortage, nuclear winter, or just a decade of climate-driven drought, the worst of human nature is what fosters survival, and the only hope for humanity to flourish past human survival is for balancing our worst against the conditions which require it.

Bradd Pitt didn't really hit any of those points for me. Were there a couple tearjerker moments? Sure. The blunt-force trauma of the book was padded in velvet, and wielded by a three year old wearing mickey mouse ears.
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
4. stevenhalter

Well, I think that is in keeping with the book...even if there isn't a sequel. That is, the vaccine idea is an okay one, but it is really just a bandaid on a bigger wound; it provides, however, an opportunity to turn the tide. It isn't a magic bullet or MacGuffin-- well, okay, it is but not aggregiously so-- but just a chance. Anyhow, if there is a second movie, & it looks like there will be, I hope it is mostly disconnected; that would be like the book, anyhow.

5. ChristopherLBennett

Right; I am always curious what people think will come out of an adaptation like that. I don't really remember liking I, Robot though. I thought it had moments but ultimately was hollow. It asked questions but didn't dwell on the possible answers to them.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
6. delascabezas

I guess, for me, the crucial argument I would make against your view point is that it boils down to "the book is better than the movie!" Which, sure! Yes. But I think the points you are hitting are just structural realities; a few hundred pages made into two hours of moving pictures is always tricky. I do think WWZ made a smart call in not trying to mimic that. I certainly think the downfall of civilization was telegraphed in the movie, though; I will disagree with you there. We see cities crumble, nations devoured, all manner of devestation!
delascabezas
9. KF
I agree that some people don't like the film because it's not the book. But I don't think that's why everyone who dislikes the film does so. For me, it didn't matter whether or not the movie resembled to book at all. That it doesn't is not a flaw. It's not why I didn't like the film.

I just felt that, as a film, it was, for the most part, poorly constructed (in terms of its narrative construction) and blandly written, with non-existant characters, a videogame plot, and humdrum staging. I'd also say that we only get a sense of what things are like in Philadelphia and Israel. We don't see much of anything in South Korea apart from a U.S. military base at night, or in Wales apart from the interior of a building that seemed like a generic videogame level.

As a zombie film in particular, I don't think it brought anything to the genre, explored the genre in an interesting way, or really had much to say about anything, inside the genre or out. And the zombies themselves were uninteresting. The genre works best, in my opinion, when zombies are something more than a monster that bites you or wants to eat you. It works best when there's a sense of pathos, an awareness of the people the zombies once were. Like you say above, these might as well be any old aliens.

I agree about the welcome presence of the Israeli soldier (though she didn't have much dialogue, or give us much of a sense of who she was), and I think the staging of the outbreak was done reasonably well, particularly in the pharmacy and in the apartment building. At that point, I had my hopes up. But my hopes started to fall once they were on the plane to South Korea (particularly during the scientist's speech), and fell further once the business with the phone started. (Wouldn't an intelligent person have turned the phone off when sneaking past zombies, particularly when the fate of the world is in their hands?) By the time we got to the end, I was regretting buying a ticket to see it.

I agree the current ending, while not great, is better than the one they originally shot. It's certainly less problematic, and there's nothing wrong with happy endings in and of themselves. (My understanding is they reshot everything after the plane takes off, so it's more than just the ending that was changed.) And the lack of gore was fine. The PG-13 rating was fine.

If the film worked for you, cool, glad you had a good time. But please don't assume that everyone "throwing shade" is doing so because the movie isn't the book.
Sky Thibedeau
10. SkylarkThibedeau
The film works if you take it as another POV from the book and that the Brad Pitt's character is so scarred from the events he gives the zombies superduper powers in his memory.
BOOK SPOILER





Kinda like the downed Pilot with the phantom sky watcher on the radio guiding them out of zombie infested La. Swamps.
delascabezas
11. sofrina
i think @6 has a point. the vignettes format worked well for "paris, je taime" without eliminating emotional effect. smaller stories, yes. but still complete. i was wrecked by the one about the african immigrant who gets stabbed. powerful and efficient storytelling.

the movie was great on many levels. there is very little in the way of deadweight characters. our heroes/companions, at least, are on top of their games when they need to be. the magazine gauntlets was one of my favorite things ever. TWD needs to steal that one! and it's great the way the movie makes everyone equally vulnerable to the crisis. the scientist is only an expert at that one thing. he's not athletic, he's no soldier, he's overcome with terror for his own life. his death was pretty devastating. as i'm wondering where the story goes without the "brains of the operation" the characters are figuring out how to carry on their mission. and gerry lane's success really comes down to the sacrifices of others: the soldiers in korea, his special forces guy getting off the plane, the israelis, the belarus pilots, the other passengers, the who officials. it doesn't matter what your skills are, if you don't team up with someone, you will not make it.

and the book, which i'm now reading, is just a separate beast. more detailed, more epic, more monstrous, more poignant. the differences allow you to enjoy each for what they are.
delascabezas
12. Hatchthunder
I am one of those who did not really like the movie. I read the book and loved it. I generally love anything zombies. The main problem with the movie from my view beside zero character development was the fact that the zombies seemed to only want to infect others. They seemed to just want to take just a nibble on someone to turn them and make another zombie. I am not sure if this was because they wanted a pg13 movie and not an R rating. If this was not a zombie movie but some kind of alien invasion movie I could have at least enjoyed it for what it was.
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
9. KF

YOU ARE THROWING SHADE SIR OR MADAM! SHAAAAAADE! Okay not really. I didn't mean to imply that people were only opposed to it for one reason; just that one of the reasons I've been seeing was getting under my skin. I agree with a lot of your points, but I also had a pretty low threshold going into the movie, since I've been let down by zombie stories pretty consistantly, lately. For me, the heart of the matter is, as I said, the happy ending. That is what I care about-- structural & character problems I'll happily grant you!

10. SkylarkThibedeau

Woah, I don't even remember that passage. Maybe I should re-read it!

11. sofrina

Actually, I think you are really onto something by focusing on the theme of sacrifice. Heck, I'd even include the hand-chopping scene under that umbrella.

12. Hatchthunder

Well, I think that was purposeful; this was about zombism as a disease, as a parasite. Even the cure interacts with it on an infectious level; the Zekes ignore the terminally ill because they don't offer a way to spread the plague!
delascabezas
14. KF
@13: It's cool. I know the feeling.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
Also, to anyone interested: if you liked the book or the movie of WWZ or if you just like zombies & the supernatural, check out David Wellington.
delascabezas
16. sofrina
@13 - hand chopping, as well as the escape from korea, were great examples where teamwork counted for everything. soldiers throw the grenades, gerry chops off the bitten hand, the other soldier puts a gun to her head while gerry tourniquets the stump and countsdown to see if she turns. korea: co brings in the fuel truck, covers the escapees boarding the plane, his man shoots him before he turns, the special forces guy gets off the plane to cut the fuel line so gerry can escape.

everyone is on their game when it matters.
David Moran
17. DavidMoran
It's interesting -- I hadn't really thought about it before, but a hallmark of the apocalypse genre really IS a deep rooted sentiment that people are terrible and will become the worst given the slightest opportunity.
David Moran
18. DavidMoran
1. delascabezas

While I think a more literal adaptation of the work is very possible. It's not possible, however, as a big budget summer action movie. The low key, low budget oral history movie would have worked GREAT if World War Z, the book, hadn't been a huge hit and had stayed kind of small and culty.
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
17. fordmadoxfraud

I mean, see also, the fad of dystopia; this is just the flip side of the ongoing conversation about dystopian & anti-science sci-fi, right? You know, the whole "oh, all the bad guys are scientists who went to far! Man invents robots, robot uprising. Man cures cancer, zombie uprising. Man clones dinosaurs, dinosaur uprising."
delascabezas
21. karen c
I liked the positive view of humanity in the film: so many sci-fi films and TV shows (especially the apocolyptic ones) always devolve into "the real enemy is our fellow humans!" - usually because they don't have the special effects budget to let their characters stay focused on fighting all those expensive CGI monsters and zombified extras. So the story gets smaller and smaller until it's just human good guys versus human bad guys, no more interesting than an episode of Law & Order. I liked that humanity pulls together in this one, and that Gerry isn't so busy saving his own life that he forgets the life standing next to him.
delascabezas
22. Moncynnes
I went to see "World War Z" on Saturday night with a friend; I have read the book, he has not.

Personally, I enjoyed the movie for what it was: a popcorn zombie flick. I put it a few notches above the standard zombie shoot-'em-up because of its scale and because it does explore some of the better parts of humanity (the sacrifices made to get Gerry's plane back in the air, the way the Israelis welcome anyone into their walled city).

Perhaps the best thing, though, was that after it was all done, my friend said he was going to read the book now, because it piqued his interest. Win-win, as far as I'm concerned.
Mordicai Knode
23. mordicai
21. karen c

Yeah, while dark parts of humanity certainly have their place in a story, I think the obsession with "the real monster was us all along!" & the incessant need to race to the bottom to see who can make a bleaker more nihilistic movie is...well, basically the same thing comics went through in the X-Treme 90s. Grim n' Gritty, TO THE MAX. I roll my eyes.

22. Moncynnes

Yeah, I know a couple of people who took the movie as an impetus to read the book. WWZ the movie isn't going to like, break into my top ten or anything but right-- it is a nice popcorn zombie flick, & it does things that others don't; to wit, the aforementioned happy ending, which is relatively scarce these days. & showing people being...people, instead of horribe savage bandits & slavers & rapists or whatever other Totally Bad Dudes trope is in vogue.
delascabezas
24. karen c
One thing I'm a little worried about is the one very radical departure from the book (well, OK, pretty much the whole movie is a departure from the book, but still... ) the VACCINE. Such a thing is never mentioned in the book at all (at least I didn't hear it in the audiobook version), and I worry about the effect of such a large sideways lurch from the thrust of the book on possible sequels. One of the most interesting things ABOUT the book was the ways the uninfected came up with to wage the war against that unique enemy - doesn't this magical McGuffin of a vaccine make the rest of the war too easy?
delascabezas
25. BrokenImages
The ending isn't happy though, the narrator is pretty much saying the real shit is still to come and millions of people will die. Besides it's not really an ending ("it's only the beginning") and it's not very original... Isn't this what everyone is doing these days? Family man gets reunited with his sweet blonde wife and kids and all together we'll overcome the big bad threat to humanity? Anyway, "humans win" isn't a happy ending, a war doesn't have a happy ending or winners, everybody's a loser. Except zombies, because they have nothing to lose, so even if the healthy humans pulled through, it was still a massive waste of humanity and life.

I agree that it feels like it one chapter of the book instead of an overview of it but that's why I feel the opposite of what you say: it's closer to the letter of the novel than its spirit. I think the film Contagion is much closer to the spirit of World War Z-the-book than this adaptation, both in its scope and its mix of "behind the scenes" at the WHO and personal stories of regular people.

Like Christopher L Bennett (#5) says (I think), the film might kind of work as a prequel to the book, because what happens in the last 2 minutes is what happens in the whole book. But that's what I was hoping to see, how the war is worldwide and how different people in different places will fight or not, etc. It's called WORLD War Z. It would have been good to see some things in more detail, like North Korea, the refugee migrations, or some of the islands stories. The most disappointing to me was the absence of the ISS and Radio Free Earth, that really showed humanity coming together completely selflessly, and the Redeker-type plans around the world. And although the film itself is technically good and fairly entertaining, the plot is completely idiotic: the main character was pointless (out of the entire UN staff no one else was capable of doing this, did they really have to bring a guy out of retirement?), the entire dialogue was just exposition, which was pretty boring, and like karen c (#24) says, the "vaccine" is a very strange (and unwelcome and unnecessary) addition to the story.

Besides I don't understand how that would work. They don't explain how they're going to do it, do they inoculate people with deadly diseases? If so how do they survive those, do they have to get a new jab every few weeks to get rid of one disease and get another? What kind of logistics would that require? Or did they make a new sort of vaccine instead, one that isn't really deadly, but only appears to be? Basically, did I miss some major exposition at the end of the film?

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