Mon
Jul 1 2013 10:00am
World War Z: Now With 100% More Preaching

World War Z Gerry

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 CoverWorld 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.

World War Z Segen Gerry

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.

World War Z

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.

15 comments
Walker White
1. Walker
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

Exactly.

But then, this is Hollywood. What other formula could there be?

Hollywood has made war movies before. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, just about every John Wayne movie of the 50s.

Yes, you have to have a central character in a movie to give the audience a point of focus. Ensemble pieces are the strength of books (or episodic television), not movies. But that central character does not have to be a savior.
wingracer
2. wingracer
Ensemble war movies can be done. Kelly's Heroes is one of my all time favorites. I guess some might call it Clint Eastwood centric but I don't really see it that way.
Adam S.
3. MDNY
The Longest Day, The Great Escape, Dirty Dozen, Thin Red Line...Non-war movies including Seven Samurai, Pulp Fiction, Traffic, Breakfast Club, and almost any Fellini film. I could go on...All ensemble casts, all decent to great films. The problems with the movie, and Hollywood in general, have more to do with poor writing and conception, placing dollar over creativity, and lack of imagination.
Matt Marquez
4. mmarquez
Coming from someone who hasn't read the book yet, I didn't get a sense of the smugness or condescension that you talk about, or that violence was wholly to blame. It was more like violence was wholly ineffective.

The destruction in the film was so complete that it didn't appear to me that any country was shown superior to any other. The US was just as decimated as anywhere else, and it took the of sacrifice of many different people in many different countries to get Gerry to where he ended up. In many ways they were more noble than Gerry.

Of course it was ridiculous that Brad Pitt/Gerry of all people would be the one to survive attack after attack, then a plane crash and *then* come up with the best defense against the infestation. But as far as zombie descruction movies go, I quite liked the film. Perhaps it's premature to compare this film against the entirety of the book while more sequels are yet to come. At least, I hope so, because I'd like to be able to enjoy both.
Christopher Morgan
5. cmorgan
@mmarquez

The problem there is that there are countries that DON'T get decimated. There are countires that are superior to how they handle the zombie apocalypse. It all comes down to willingness to face the problem at hand and adapt.

Now I haven't seen the movie, but in the book, both Cuba and Israel emerge as major world powers following the Great War, soley because they manage to do what other countries don't, beat back the horde.
wingracer
6. ~ Sil in Corea
You have the answer right there! It should be a series. like Game of Thrones. Then it could be an ensemble, a company of actors.
wingracer
7. sofrina
i just blazed through the book and it seems to me that israel and cuba were able to withstand the onslaught due to unique issues. israel took it seriously from the outset and didn't wait - like most other countries or tell their citizens there was no problem. cuba had the fortune of it's island geography to aid it. they were able to isolate and fortify before the aspect of zombies walking out of the sea became an issue. and north korea is a complete mystery.

having read the book, it just feels like a completely different beast. the zombies are slow, shambling, groaning corpses. the idea of swift, agile zombies is only toyed with by some soldiers with too much time on their hands. it would certainly be awesome to see an exploration of the slow zombies overrunning civilization simply because no one believed they were real and no one knew how to kill them. the movie seems to operate in that space, the panicked early days when average people were caught off guard.
David Stumme
8. grenadier
There have been movies that featured large ensemble casts, arranged around an event or theme that affected all of the diverse characters. The last few Garry Marshall romantic comedies come to mind (Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve), along with their spiritual parent, "Love Actually"

Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and some of Steven Soderbergh's films come to mind too, most importantly "Contagion," which more closely resembles World War Z in tone and subject matter.

It was possible to make a more-accurate adaptation of WWZ. They just chose not to.
Sky Thibedeau
9. SkylarkThibedeau
The Chinese sections of the book provided a great narrative of where the outbreak began. The internal struggle within China once things went South were very meaty and helped show international cooperation. The rebel nuclear sub helping light the refugee fleet. It would make a great movie too though it would not be shown in that country.
wingracer
11. Petar Belic
The form of the book was interesting; somewhat like Andre Brink's gorgeous 'A Chain of Voices'. The problem was in it's execution; it quickly became clear that the author's ambition exceeded his writing skills dramatically. Every single individual sounded the same. There were no individual voices, and if we were not told that this individual came from this part of the world, we would know no difference - a US soldier 'spoke' in the same voice as a chinese doctor. The form of the book was critical to tstory though, and helped create a nice documentary feel. Poor Hollywood can't do this though. Too risky!
Jack Flynn
12. JackofMidworld
I've posted this elsewhere but I (seriously) spent a week and a half replacing "World War Z" with "Brad Pitt's Big-Ass Zombie Movie" every time I saw or heard it, trying to separate the movie from the book, just so I could bring myself to go with my friend to see it (he brought up the point that if the movie bombs, it'll be the last big-budget zombie/horror movie for a while; plus, I like most of Brad Pitt's movies). That said, the movie wasn't aterrible one, and a pretty decent zombie movie, all things being equal. I had a good time seeing it, but there were two times that I still wanted to stand up in the theater and yell at the screen - one was when the Zekes came over the walls that you mentioned, and the other was when they got a message that they'd lost touch with the president and the vice president.

I can only hope that somebody with some pull and some Hollywood connections hears all the hubbub and realizes that there really is a market for either a series or miniseries that's actually based on the book, versus inspired by it (which the movie really seems to be).

Hell, I'd be happy to see a decent anime version of the book, as long as I got to see the battle of Yonkers and a downed pilot in it!
wingracer
13. Salabra
Three Word Review:

"More Hollywood Crap."
wingracer
14. Ela
A couple of things I learned from attending the premiere of the film:
1. The movie took a long time to bring to the screen (at least 5 years.) According to the brief speech before the movie started, they started with something inspired by the novel, and ended with something that Hollywood would distribute.
2. Brad was one of the drivers behind getting the movie made and a producer. The director said it was his interest in getting the movie made that kept things going.
They did say that WWZ the novel was the inspiration for the film, but didn't frame it as a movie based on the book.

IMHO, if the movie gets more people to go out and pick up the book just because of the title, then it's been a success. It's kind of like True Blood; the TV show and the books happen in the same context but they're two very different interpretations of the theme. If you separate the two experiences from one another, you can appreciate (or not) each for what it is.
Heni0 Den
15. king42
One of the best zombie movies, even a good story.
wingracer
16. Jannisar
zombies dont sprint. they shamble. 28 days later creatures sprint, because they arent zombies, they are infected with some nasty weaponized version of rabies. they decided to do the sprinting thing for this movie for excitement, as they changed everything else from the book. i consider the movie, in relation to the book, to be a complete travesty.

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