World War Z: surfing a wave of internet cynicism

The inaccuracy of the forthcoming World War Z adaptation has displeased some. But does the film deserve all the cynicism, Ryan wonders...

It’s now more than six years since the original publication of Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War. An account of a zombie outbreak told from the perspective of its survivors, the novel fused horror with the rigour of speculative fiction, in that it attempted to imagine how governments and individuals might react to such an outbreak, and how it might affect the already tense relationships between nations.

As the epidemic spreads, pharmaceutical companies line their pockets with useless ‘cures’, rival states settle old scores, and the US military struggles to adapt to a war with a slow yet indefatigable enemy. “Ignorance was the enemy,” one character bitterly observes; “cold, hard facts were the weapons.”

The quality of World War Z as a piece of social commentary made it a critical and popular hit. Sure, its descriptions of zombie attacks were vivid and helped its sales (the account of a blind Japanese sensei’s zombie fights particularly lingers in the mind), but World War Z‘s grounding in 21st century reality – and how a zombie outbreak would affect it – were what made it so compelling to read.

When the book inspired a Hollywood bidding war back in 2007, it was broadly assumed that an accurate adaptation would take the form of a mockumentary, with first-person accounts intercut with fake archive footage of the outbreak. When Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment secured the rights,  screenwriter J Michael Straczynski – once the showrunner on Babylon 5 – was given the difficult task of somehow moulding World War Z‘s oral history into a compelling script. 

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With Marc (Quantum Of Solace) Forster hired as director, things appeared to be moving apace. A leaked draft of the script was described glowingly by Ain’t It Cool, and compared to the superb Children Of Men, or a 70s conspiracy thriller. Brooks expressed his approval of Straczynski’s screenplay, telling Fangoria, “Straczynski found a way to tie it all together. The last draft I read was amazing.”

By 2009, however, the situation appeared to have changed somewhat. Although production was expected to begin at the beginning of that year, it transpired that the script was still being reworked. Presumably, the text was being amended to accommodate Brad Pitt, who was confirmed as the movie’s headline actor in 2010. By this point, Straczynski had been replaced by a new writer, Matthew Michael Carnahan, the writer of The Kingdom and Lions For Lambs.

World War Z finally went into production in 2011, with a shooting budget of around $180 million. It was at this point, when Paramount put out an official synopsis, that it became clear that the movie would be departing radically from the book. “The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt)”, the blurb went, “who traverses the world in a race against time to stop the zombie pandemic.”

For devotees of the source, the notion of the central character being in the usual ‘race against time’ stuck in the throat somewhat; the novel was presented as a series of interviews compiled after the fact, rather than a thriller-style search for a cure. Apart from the antipathy from fans, the movie had its own behind-the-scenes problems to deal with. Originally intended for release in December 2012, World War Z‘s release was pushed back to June 2013 to allow for a third-act rewrite. Damon Lindelof and then Drew Goddard were brought in to rework the final segment, and reshoots began in September and October. 

So given all of this production history and internet grumbling, how does the newly-released trailer measure up to our expectations? The first, and most obvious conclusion to draw is that, yes, World War Z will be a conventional action/adventure/horror mash-up, with little hint of the multiple narratives and documentary style of the book.

In fact, the trailer’s opening sequence, in which Pitt’s Gerry Lane and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) play I Spy with their two kids in a Manhattan traffic jam, has the vaguest hint of Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds adaptation to it. Gradually, we see the scale of the outbreak, as the city descends into chaos. With the Inception-like parps of the soundtrack, men in uniform tell us that the zombie epidemic is global, and that, for whatever reason, UN chap Gerry is humanity’s only hope.

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Comments have already been made about World War Z‘s running zombies, which draw inevitable comparisons with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and its sequel, as well as Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake.

Leaving aside all the things that World War Z isn’t – it isn’t a direct adaptation of the book, and it certainly isn’t a full-blooded horror in the Romero mode – it’s worth focusing on what the movie could possibly provide. For one thing, its high budget has allowed for the kind of expansive scenes of rampaging ghouls and devastation that an indie zombie movie could only hint at. 

Whatever you make of the whole running zombie issue, it has to be said that the images of hundreds of the undead piling on top of one another like a swarming mountain are quite startling, and it’s difficult to think of another genre movie to have attempted something like it, except maybe Starship Troopers and its army of giant insects. If nothing else, the trailer shows just how far computer graphics have come since 2007’s I Am Legend, whose disappointing digital monsters proved such a distraction from its otherwise sure-footed build-up.

And while the documentary trappings of the book are long gone, its scope remains; the trailer gives brief hints of Pitt’s visits to other parts of the world (possible India) in search of a solution to the nightmare.

Inevitably, question marks remain over Marc Forster’s movie. Gerry Lane is a toe-curling name for a character, and it’s impossible to discern from a two-minute trailer whether World War Z will retain the book’s keen social commentary. But equally, it would be churlish to write a movie off on the basis of little more than 120 seconds’ worth of footage, particularly when it displays what is a relatively unusual handling of the undead; they don’t so much run as flow like a seething tidal wave. Time will tell whether the satire remains, but for now, the global sweep of Max Brooks’ novel is definitely present and correct.

If the internet’s comments are to be believed, the trailer has done little to stem the cynicism surrounding the film, and it appears that, for some, World War Z can do no right. We, on the other hand, are willing to keep an open mind. Because while the movie appears to retain only vague echoes of the book, this certainly doesn’t mean it won’t be a decent piece of entertainment in its own right – as some literary adaptations have proved in the past, accuracy isn’t always a guarantee of quality.

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