It was nearly an impossible book to film, but they filmed it anyway.
There’s only one book that comes to mind as a successful movie adaptation (though I’m sure there are tons of others), and that’s The Hunger Games.
World War Z the movie, produced by Brad Pitt, was a moderately successful movie.
Both are vastly different beasts, and the adaptation didn’t quite make the Hunger Games standard.
To be fair, the book is nearly unfilmable as written. It’s told in the style of The Good War, an oral history of World War II by Studs Terkel. World War Z (book) is written after a global zombie pandemic/attack/war. It’s narrator is a UN rep who is compiling reports on the war from around the globe. In a neat literary trick, while the narrator appears in every chapter — he actually interviews the survivors — we never even know his name, or much else about him. This allows the focus to be on the individual stories throughout the book.
And the stories are gripping. We hear from normal folks who have to bury their pain to soldiers who relay harrowing tales of near death to higher-ups who reflect on the war from a matter-of-fact perspective. Max Brooks excelled at writing these micro-tales that not only have genuine human drama, but combine facts on worldwide culture and geopolitics. Brooks covers nearly every facet of the global war and its aftermath, including the new world order that results. It’s fascinating to see how Russia has become a theocracy, Cuba is a capitalist powerhouse, Israel and Palestine finally live in peace, and China is a democracy.
The movie version of World War Z. goes in a different direction. The hero (Hollywood loves its heroes) is Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). He is a former UN investigator who gets caught up in the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia with his wife and daughters. After a close escape from a Newark rooftop, Lane and his family are flown to a ship, where Lane is called back to duty to help a CDC scientist search for a cure. This search takes Lane (and the viewer) to South Korea, Israel, and Wales.
The movie tried to stay true to the book in the sense that it was a global story. It was exciting to travel to those locations, even if the plot felt forced. For instance, I was unsure as to why Wales, in particular.
But while the book was one of my favorite reads, it did lack that central human character, and that’s the role that Gerry Lane served.
The movie also improved the book in its use of zombies. These were not the slow, ambling (though still menacing) zombies that we’re used to ,and which Brooks used. These zombies were lightning fast. The opening scene of Lane’s escape in the Philly streets was outstanding. The swarm happens in real time. It’s intense. There’s nothing like that in the book, though to be fair, it’s much easier to relay menace on film than in a book. And the scene with the zombie swarm scaling the wall in Jerusalem is a classic.
Still, the movie couldn’t quite match the book in its scope. And as with most action movies, it stretched my belief nearly to the breaking point. A zombie outbreak on a plane results in a too-neat escape that could never happen in real life. Also, in the movie, the Israelis survived because they spotted the threat before any other country and walled themselves off. Yet they didn’t realize that noise would attract the zombies? The movie turned one of the most hopeful parts of the book — a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace — into a tragedy.
In short, there were too many harrowing escapes for Pitt, and the last act in Wales nearly put me to sleep.
My recommendation — read the book if nothing else. Then see the movie, at the very least for it’s amazing visual effects. I hear there are sequels to the movie planned. Hopefully they figure out how to add more of the book’s heart.