World War Z roundtable discussion

This month, we tried something new - three of of our bloggers went to see World War Z with special guest Jeff Nelson. We all had previous experience with Max Brooks' book (Courtney rightly hesitated to call it a novel) either as print (Brittney and Courtney) or audiobook (Jeff and Mike). The four of us attended a late-night, non-3D showing of WWZ in a packed theatre one week after the movie's major release date. The following transcript is our very fresh thoughts on the movie, only slightly edited for readability and coherence.

Mike: I want us to start out by talking about our expectations for the film, what we came to it with in terms of Max Brooks' book, trailers, or pre-release buzz.

Brittney: When I heard that they had to reshoot 40+ minutes of content--a huge chunk of screen time for them to redo--I thought, "Brad Pitt's making this with his Plan B productions - how could he let this happen?" Add to that the rumors about fights with the director, and I was coming in with pretty low expectations. 

Jeff: I didn't hear much about the production drama, but I did manage to hear the spoiler - basically, how they were going to beat the zombies in the end. But despite that, I really enjoyed it. 

Courtney: When I first saw the trailer, I thought it seemed yet another average rip-off zombie flick, with fast-runners of I Am Legend and 28 Days Later. And then a week ago, I got over that prejudice and decided to read the book, because I heard it's a decent read; I read the majority of the novel--if you could call it that--and it changed my expectations of the film. I wondered how they would focus on the individual stories that were being told. That said, I was going in with low expectations.

Jeff: I'd heard the audiobook with Mark Hamill, the much abridged one, but I couldn't remember details about plot points, so I didn't really have expectations concerning the book.

Mike: I've never read the print edition - I've listened to both versions of the audiobook: both the much abridged 2006 version, and the less abridged 2013 version. I actually think this is the best way to experience the book, given that it's an "oral history" of the zombie conflict, and the voice actors are really gifted performers who elevate Brooks' prose with their performance.

Brittney: I think if I had listened to the audiobook, the reading experience would have been different - there were so many voices, at times almost written in dialect, but there was still a uniformity to the character voices, perhaps because of the repetition of ex-military voices or civilian voices. I had previously read the book, and when I heard about the movie, I wondered, "How is this going to happen?" How are they going to turn all these different narratives into one cohesive narrative. So I was pretty skeptical.

Mike: I was hoping it would be like Contagion, which is like WWZ without the zombies. 

Jeff: I think when you're looking at adapting a book to a movie, you have to strip it down and focus on one main element or one character, rather than trying to tell everything in two hours, because it just can't happen.

Courtney: It reminded me of Resident Evil, the first and third games for the Wii, where you as the player are trying to find something -- a cure, or a better, more secure environment for the entire game. It's the continuous movement, collecting data, info...breadcrumbs, as is in the movie...which was very clever in the movie. Brad Pitt keeps making these connections using little details that he saw along his journey: it's very similar to the flow of Resident Evil.

Mike: That's an interesting moment of intertextuality, though I'm stretching the use of the term text to say so. Instead of referencing an earlier fast-zombie in a film, you're referencing a game. I'm reading the second edition of Linda Hutcheon's Theory of Adaptation, which just came out this year. She basically says we need to get away from discussions of adaptation which focus on fidelity to the book as original, as though the book has some priveleged status when you have so many other possible media for adaptation. Normally, academics only talk book to film, and miss out on discussing other adaptations like video games or comic books, or in my estimation, even trailers as works of art. She says that when you have a video game adaptation, it's not about fidelity to the original narrative, which is linear, it's a non-linear narrative that happens in the same world as that book. Which is another way of considering an adaptation - not, "is this exactly like the book?" but rather, "is this happening in the same world as the book?" If you consider WWZ in terms of book-to-film fidelity, it's a failure. If you consider it as another story in that same universe, it fares a bit better: at least, up until the last hour.   

Brittney: That's a good point. I think initially, it could have fit into the narrative. But in the book, one of the military men says you can literally walk away from the zombies--you could speedwalk and get away. I didn't like the changes the film made to the zombies' origin and the way they act, since it changes the way they deal with them completely. 

Mike: Agreed. The first hour, aside from the film's change from slow-walkers to fast-runners, could easily have taken place in parallel to the stories in the book. Brad Pitt's story even intersects with them at points, like in Israel. It kept the film from being a slavish recreation of a story I already know. But once they started playing with the origin and solution, the film generated a sort of alternate history of the zombie war Brooks imagined. But my greatest disappointment with any comparisons of fidelity to the book was the loss of the social commentary. In the book, the most horrific moments don't involve zombies: they involve real-world atrocities that are already happening.

Jeff: You mentioned that movie and even trailer stands on its own from the book — maybe opening titles can too?If the movie had any message, I think it could be that it's important to pay attention to what's happening in the world, and that was emphasised most in the opening titles.

Brittney: I lamented the loss of multiculturalism and multi-nationalism from book to film. 

Mike: There was a little bit!

Brittney: A very little bit. We got Israel and we got...South Korea.

Mike: And when we were in South Korea, all we saw were Americans.

Brittney: No Koreans!

Courtney: But there was an ethnic diversity to the people the characters were interacting with, even in Wales - the doctors at the W.H.O. But Brooks really went to every corner of the globe...he even had the Canadian Armed Forces!

Jeff: I agree that the lack of social commentary is a failing of this movie, when you consider other zombie films, especially George Romero's, which were often commentary on consumerism or what have you. Aside from the credits, that commentary is lacking.

Courtney: I just read something about the music, Muse's "The 2nd Law: Isolated System." Brad Pitt wanted to find something like "Tubular Bells" or the Exorcist Theme, and they knew that Muse was creating their new album based on Max Brooks' book, because Matt Bellamy likes to use literature as inspiration for the songs he's writing. And that song is about escaping consumerism, or control, etc.

Jeff: I like the idea of it being a "post-zombie" movie. One of the characteristics of earlier zombie movies is that nobody ever says the word "zombie." As soon as you say the word zombie, it becomes ridiculous. But they call them zombies here, or the military calls them...

Brittney: Zekes - they other them. In World War II you have Charlie, you have Hans, you have...

Jeff: Gerries...

Brittney: And here we have Zekes. They didn't humanize them, whereas in The Walking Dead, there's this perception that "they're people!" And a lot of characters have trouble with that, that they have to kill this person they previously knew. In WWZ we don't get any of that. They become the Other.

Jeff: For any kind of apocalypse movie, I always enjoy the lead up before it hits, where there's clues in the background action while the main characters go about their lives. Rise of the Planet of the Apes did that well, although is was mostly working off the original movie.

Mike: The build-up in the film of WWZ was really strong. It felt like the film I'd wanted Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead to be. Snyder's Dawn of the Dead started so well: I was terrified in those opening minutes, and loved that wide-shot that showed the car driving through the urban devastation of the zombie plague. And then the action moved into the mall, and it ceased being interesting. I suppose that's what I didn't like about the final act of WWZ - once the story moved "indoors," I wasn't as interested. The scenes of large-scale zombie hordes were really well-done, and kept emphasizing how bad things were.

Brittney: Eli Roth made a good point regarding that kind of wide-spread terror. He said that the one thing that he always wanted to see was the actual moment the plague hits, not just one spot but everywhere. You usually end up seeing glimpses of the widespread panic on news, like the opening of World War Z, but you don't actually get that global panic of it happening everywhere. 
Jeff: I remember reading that the director had the idea to model the movement of the zombie swarms on insects, which I found really effective.

Mike: The whole film seemed crafted around the idea of speed - the pacing was fast, the zombies were fast - which is appropriate, since the medium of film is all about speed and concision. A book has the time to unfold, but a film only has those two hours. Plus, the fast-zombies made for some great jump-scares.

Brittney: I know I jumped in my seat a few times - the zombies moved so quickly - you couldn't anticipate all of the jump-scares. It keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and makes for a much better movie.

Courtney: Again, I was really reminded of Resident Evil, where you battle fast-moving zombies. The movements of the zombies in WWZ were very much like those in the Resident Evil video game. And those zombies were also triggered by sound.

Mike: It's definitely built on the shoulders of other works, which is inevitable--

Courtney: --there are only so many original approaches...

Mike: Yes, and we're past the crest with the wave of zombie films and fictions in this last decade.

Brittney: We're post-zombie...Sean of the Dead might have been one of those crest points.

Mike: Yeah - and for this film to be as entertaining as it was despite that, is a testament to its quality. I'd give it a solid 4/5. It's not a great film, and it's not Brooks' novel onscreen, but it is a great thriller, and I have to give it props for being a film younger teens can see, and enjoy, without it being a splatterfest...

Jeff: Yeah - there were no scenes with intestines being ripped out. I'd also give it a 4/5. I do enjoy a good zombie movie!

Courtney: Having watched the movie, I'm kinda disappointed, since it was a Brad Pitt vehicle. Though it was pretty intense, I would give it a 3/5.

Brittney: I give it a 3.5/5, because this movie almost entirely fell on Brad Pitt's shoulders. He was in nearly every scene, and he gives an excellent performance as the family man who just has to get home. But the ending was too predictable, which was a big let-down for me.


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