So World War Z exists as a movie now! And, predictably, it’s not very good. That’s not really a surprise to anyone that followed it at this point: it was, from the beginning a pretty transparent attempt to get Brad Pitt into the much-sought-after “not actually James Bond” action hero franchise market1. They launched on to a property that had a lot of very rabid fans and that existed in a theme (zombies) that was, at the time of its greenlighting, almost impossible not to make money on, especially after a string of very profitable and surprisingly worthwhile zombie movies.
And then they made a hash of the movie they’d shot, re-shot some ridiculous percentage of it, and released it in the middle of June. And then everyone was angry.
As one, the internet rose up and demanded that the reason that the movie was terrible was because it was a poor adaptation of the book, and that if they’d been more faithful to the book, they would have had a good movie. Because this is what that sort of people say every single time that a movie based on a book that they’ve read comes out. And it is, of course, complete and utter bullshit. Every time a book captures the consciousness of the sort of people who talk to other people about things on the internet2, the conversation immediately turns to it being a movie3. It seems like a good idea: it’s a cracking story that inspires vivid imagery in the mind of the reader, or that moves the reader in a way that makes it seem like it would also be possible to get real live human people out there to re-enact it. That’s basically never what happens.
Bear with me while I go through the basics. I understand that each and every one of you already knows all of this stuff, but I need to set up a frame here. I promise I’m not condescending, just laying out the beginning of the thing.
There are great movies that are adapted from books. There are even a lot of great movies that are adapted from books. Almost none of those are faithful adaptations of books. This is almost never to their detriment. For every The Exorcist or Psycho or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone there’s the Shining or The Silence of the Lambs or, lest we forget, The Fucking Godfather For Christ’s Sake. Films that were great not because they shot what was in the book, but because they turned the elements that were effective about the book into a movie with the same title. The Shining is about an alcoholic who is also kind of a bastard who – it turns out – was kind of a bastard not because of the alcohol but because he generally just picked up on the evil around him and turned into a monster4. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a circuitous tone-poem of a film about what it means to lose one’s mind, and how that happens.
But it’s not fair to compare apples to oranges, so let’s compare World War Z to another orange.
One of the greatest films ever made, unquestionably, is Jurassic Park5. The book is a meditation on science, and what happens when “can” interferes with “should” and corporate greed takes control of important science stuff. It’s about the hubris of man, and the inevitability of the world’s reassertion of its own natural order, ganging aglay even the best laid plans of men and other men. Especially if those men are greedy. It’s a good book – using its adventure plot to propel the characters through the philosophy of chaos theory via the in-world portal of Dr. Ian Malcom. The movie is about…well, dinosaurs. Who, y’know, chomp stuff. With their teeth. It’s kind of got all the science stuff in it, but the book’s villainy – which is the greed of John Hammond, which involves him keeping things proprietary and charging a lot of money to people, leaving the only decent people that want to work for him as the people who are interested in pure science (the vet, the groundskeeper, and even the head computer programmer guy) – is not the movie’s villainy, which is Seinfeld’s Newman, who wants desperately to make a lot of money off of someone else’s gain6.
But the movie works because, even though it’s no longer specifically about the philosophical and scientific implications in the book, those things are still there. The focus of the film is on the cinematic elements – it may not make any actual sense that the multi-ton tyrannosaurs rex is suddenly a goddamned ninja when he crashes through the wall at the end and eats the raptor, but it makes perfect cinematic sense: the dinosaurs, the creations of the father that cruelly left them to their own fate7, are not bad. They’re a neutral force. They make lack the sapient ability to decide their own course of action, but they’re not necessarily out to get the people, they’re just hungry. It’s a more elemental version of the same theme. Nevertheless, the film does not look like the book reads. It’s an entirely separate song played using the same notes as the book, and that’s fine. It works.
World War Z apparently8 adapted none of the things that made the book work – cinematic or otherwise. A book about the sociopolitical (and even geological) implications of a zombie war became a movie about Brad Pitt: CIA ninja and his search for the cure, which is not only a bad idea, but is also remarkably similar to what Paramount did to I Am Legend for that utter failure of a movie.
And here we come to the problem: the complaints about the movie itself tend to focus less on how tone-deaf it is as a work using the source material, and more on how many things in the book weren’t specifically depicted in the movie. “Where,” they all demand, “is The Battle of Yonkers? Where is the film-maker guy? Where is the girl whose family flees to Canda9?” And this is why everyone needs to shut the hell up.
The adaptation of a property into a movie – that thing that everyone seems to need to clamor for as soon as they finish one of the four books they read in a year – has become less about wanting to see what moved them or excited them about the book, and more about cataloguing the minutiae that they recognize. And so The Lord of the Rings, a visually-impressive but story-bankrupt adaptation of a story-heavy but non-cinematic set of books are given a pass, because Peter Jackson paid a bunch of people to spend years of their life tirelessly fashioning things that are described visually in the books so that millions of fans can point and say “oh hey, it’s Grond!10” V for Vendetta didn’t even have to get any of its story right – it was about a totes badass blowin-stuff-up dude who wore a mask! – because it looked like people thought it probably should11. Hell, Game of Thrones could throw in an entire pregnancy subplot that not only wasn’t in the book, but wouldn’t have made sense in the book, but it gets a pass, because the specific set of details that people decided long ago should be in there made it in there.
My point here is this: you’re welcome not to like World War Z. It sounds dreadful. But it’s probably not dreadful because you don’t get to see the tunnels under Paris, or the Russian decimations, or the Redekker plan. It’s dreadful because they bought a property and made a bad movie out of it. But the good news is that the book is still right there! You can go read it again! You can even picture Brad Pitt shoving microphones in people’s faces! And the pictures will line up exactly with what you think they should, because it’s your brain after all, and you can get around to disliking things not because they don’t scratch your weird little fanboy itch, but rather because they’re actually terrible.
Because whining about how it didn’t adapt the right things didn’t keep anyone from seeing it, which means now you idiots are going to get a sequel, which means that we’re all going to have to sit through all of this shit again.
1 the Bourne movies, or the Mission Impossible movies, or even Crank, although World War Z would probably be a much more interesting movie if it was more like Crank.
2 actually, letters-pages and fanzines, not to mention bookstores, basements and bars have always been full of this sort of thing. It’s just that now there’s a more-publicly-visible mostly-permanent record of this sort of thing, so it seems like it’s taking up more space.
3 or, increasingly often, a cable television series. I’m not going to address that much here except incidentally, but I will say that this is, I suppose, fine. Those things can be forever long, they’re allowed to end in a way that network television shows generally aren’t, and they increasingly have the budget flexibility to be able to keep up with sff-style storytelling. To wit: as much as I hate The Walking Dead for any number of reasons, it’s at least a relatively-faithful representation of the comic book, which I also hate, for basically the same reasons.
4 that description isn’t doing the book, which I actually like quite a lot, any favors, and for that I suppose I should apologize to Stephen King, but I do have to make a point, here. Eventually.
5 yes it is. Whatever your argument is, it’s stupid and you should feel bad.
6 this is not the part where I point out that everyone who, at any point, abandons the kids dies, that the hero quite pointedly doesn’t abandon the kids, that the problems on the island – where every animal is only potentially a mother, and there are no fathers anywhere – begin when some of the animals change sex, thereby becoming fathers who probably abandon their kids to do other stuff. Like chomp on lawyers who also abandon their kids. I’m not pointing this out because Jurassic Park is awesome, and Stephen Spielberg is a grown-ass man who can work out his own paternal abandonment issues.
7 dammit. I said I wasn’t going to do that.
8 I suppose twelve hundred words into this thing is probably as good a time as any to bury the confession that I haven’t seen it, and have no real plans to in a footnote.
9 editorial aside: if they had managed one sequence in the movie that was as good as the chapter about the girl whose family flees to Canada – a chapter that really could have framed the whole movie, as it more than any other single chapter actually spoke to a human, civilian condition during the plague – I would already have seen it twice.
10 that’s the battering ram that the orcs use at the battle of Helm’s Deep. It appears in the movie even while Elrond’s kids, the scouring of the Shire, most of Aragorn’s backstory, and any human (well, hobbit, I suppose) motivation for Frodo do not.
11 Which, really, should just make us feel bad for the people who made From Hell, who had decided a few years too soon that people would go see a movie if you chanted Alan Moore about it but didn’t make them read a dense, unsympathetic text with a stupid ending. Actually, this whole piece could have centered on Alan Moore adaptations, as the whole field of them covers one aspect or another of the problems with adaptation.