WORLD WAR Z scaring novel fans away from the film? Rationality is the cure

Feverish controversy over adapting Max Brooks' WORLD WAR Z show contagious fan panic - it's not the end of the worldFollowing up on our blog article from yesterday on the release date of WORLD WAR Z, Paramount’s zombie-contagion thriller starring Brad Pitt, FilmEdge addresses the apparent apocalyptic panic by fans of Max Brooks‘ novel rebelling at the story synopsis released by the studio (provided in full below). Pitt is still filming the adaptation for director Marc Forster based on Matthew Michael Carnahan‘s script for its 2012 release.

What’s taken a bite out of the book’s devotees is the consolidation of the zombie war action around Pitt’s character, a UN-hired protagonist who doesn’t exist in the reportage-style narrative of Brooks’ end times epic. Here’s the supposedly offending story synopsis from Paramount:

The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself. [Mireille] Enos plays Gerry’s wife Karen Lane; [Daniella] Kertesz is his comrade in arms, Segen.

The doubts and derision infecting much of book’s more vocal fan base arise from Paramount abandoning the flashback-style interviews and personal accounts by many separate, far-flung contributors recollecting the terrible outbreak of feverish death after it encircled the globe. The objection: by centering all this reportage narration on one main protagonist like Gerry Lane, the globally-related incidents might be too neatly confined to our hero’s presence in bastardized Hollywood fashion.

Witness these cries of filmmaking foul:

“Leave it to Hollywood to royally screw up a fantastic property like World War Z. Bastards.”

“rubbish. that’s not the book AT ALL. I’m very disappointed”

“They dropped the J. Michael Straczynski, which was a paint-by-numbers translation of the novel and go ahead with the Black Hawk Down meets Night of the Living Dead approach. EPIC FAIL.”

Even Collider’s Matt Goldberg joined the nay-saying nabobs of negativity.

Such complaints about movie adaptations are common throughout film adaptation history. Add the internet to the equation, and such disapproving discourse can reach epidemic proportions almost instantly as opinions (fully informed or simply feverish) spread quickly from Impatient Zero’s first e-blurb.

Yet other fans and commenters are replying rationally, and FilmEdge joins their ranks to stamp out this strain of infectious knee-jerkitis about Paramount’s adaptation.

Evidence Exhibit A: complaining about how Hollywood studios must condense, translate and often simplify adapted novels’ narratives for the big screen is like asking them to give up the book-to-box office conversion entirely. If a screenwriter or director dared adapt a best-selling novel page-for-page to the screen, the sluggish, tedious film which resulted would barely fit in one screening per day due to its elephantine length.

Exhibit B: while the epistolary narrative of Brooks’ enjoyable, evocative novel provides the horror tale’s unique tone and personality which helped make it a best-seller, this backtracking format doesn’t suit mainstream Hollywood drama well — mainly because the film’s ending would be a foregone conclusion as implied by the zombie holocaust survivors’ recollections.  Ninety-plus minutes of flashback accounts from unrelated characters all speaking about the flesh-eating action in the past tense would literally suck the life out of such a film translation, and most likely even Brooks’ most devout Z-fans would grow tired of the post-apocalyptic inaction.

Exhibit C: unless you’re a brash, brilliant filmmaker like Christopher Nolan willing to take a huge gamble on filming a backwards narrative like MEMENTO, it’s smartest and safest to keep a thriller’s plot on-track and hurtling ever forward to its finale. Such a gimmick (however smartly executed) may work fine for an intimate, smaller scale character drama about a protagonist’s mystery to solve the puzzle of his own identity. Not so much in a world seething with the infectious undead where survival of the human race is indeed a race against time to either find a medical cure or dispose of the undead to halt the contagion. Theater audiences want to witness this race against extinction, not watch participants recount their laps after the winner has already been crowned.

Exhibit D: This internet dissent arose based entirely upon a brief, one-paragraph studio synopsis of WORLD WAR Z and not even one filmed frame of action or publicity still from the set. Talk about premature escalation! While the synopsis gives us a crucial clue to the film’s narrative format, it doesn’t reveal any secrets or surprises about how the cinematic translation might thrill, horrify or engage us equally as well on its own merits as the source material did. Give those not resting in peace a chance to terrify us on the big screen as much as they did on Brooks’ novel pages.

When Raymond Chandler was asked if Hollywood’s film adaptations had ruined his novels, The Big Sleep author supposedly replied, “They’re not ruined. They’re right there on the shelf.” While it’s true that reading a novel like Brooks’ WORLD WAR Z is an intimate, personal experience that can’t help but imbue some sense of individual ownership of the experience, this illusion of propriety is abandoned when its story is refitted to the mass media purpose of a film or television adaptation, venues which appeal to and involve large, group audiences by design. Where such “I liked the book better” critics fail to prosecute their case effectively — especially when doing so prematurely — is by denying the two exclusive natures of these distinct, valuable mediums of dramatic communication.

In the wise words of Sergeant Hulka, “Lighten up, Francis.” Express your disappointment, doubters, but don’t make the silly mistake of throwing out the film adaptation before you even see a flicker of the zombie goodness which may have you screaming in your cineplex seats.  Come on, folks, it’s a marketing story synopsis . . . not the end of the world.

Paramount’s official WORLD WAR Z press release:

Paramount Pictures announced today it has set a release date of December 21st, 2012 for World War Z starring Academy Award-nominee Brad Pitt, with Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) directing. The geo-political thriller from Paramount and Skydance Productions, in association with Hemisphere Media Capital and GK Films, is a Plan B Entertainment/Apparatus Productions production that is shooting in England following initial photography completed in Malta last month. The film will also shoot in Scotland and Hungary.

Produced by Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Colin Wilson, the screenplay is written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play) from Max Brooks’ best-selling novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Starring Pitt (Moneyball), Mireille Enos (AMC’s “The Killing”), Daniella Kertesz in her feature film debut, James Badge Dale (The Departed) and Matthew Fox (“Lost”), the film’s Executive Producers are Forster, Brad Simpson, David Ellison, Paul Schwake, Dana Goldberg, Graham King and Tim Headington.

The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself. Enos plays Gerry’s wife Karen Lane; Kertesz is his comrade in arms, Segen.

Behind-the-scenes talent includes two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator; JFK), production designer Nigel Phelps (Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo (Avatar) and Academy Award-nominated editor Matt Chessè (Finding Neverland).

4 thoughts on “WORLD WAR Z scaring novel fans away from the film? Rationality is the cure

  1. I can understand your points about the structure of hollywood and movie making, but I feel that on this one you are lending even more ligitimacy to the Creatively Bankrupt Hollywood machine. If a story has been told in one medium, a great deal of the time it can be translated into another one. Yes it will need some work to do so, however, banking on the already stale formula the Hollywood relies on now, they wouldn’t even try.

    I am glad that Peter Jackson fought so hard to see the Lord of the Rings trilogy done the way it was done, as the studios didnt want to pony up for that way initially. Peter knew the Hollywood adaptation foibles and creatively sidestepped them. I can only hope that Brad Pitt and company do too.

    • Interesting that you mention Peter Jackson and LOTR, since he and co-writers Boyens and Walsh eliminated, truncated and reorganized entire chapters, storylines and dialogue sources while adapting Tolkien’s novels. Miramax initially wanted Jackson to adapt the trilogy of books into two films, but it wasn’t like they weren’t willing to spend money on it, as you may suggest. Co-producing three films simultaneously was a daunting task, and no doubt Miramax saw that headache coming — just as Jackson and New Line experienced it later.

      But even so, there are huge elements shifted around from Tolkien’s way, especially from TWO TOWERS into RETURN OF THE KING, and entire passages dropped from both for storytelling sake. While they held the spirit of Tolkien’s books sacred, they were not so devout as to avoid editing and revising his own story to suit the needs of filmmaking, which any literary adaptation must do in order to succeed as a film at all. The same will be true with Brooks’ novel. And let’s not forget: if Brooks didn’t want his novel adapted to a film in order to somehow preserve its integrity, all he had to do was not sell the rights, as many authors have done.

      At any rate, it’s still a common fallacy that a filmed adaptation can ‘ruin’ the novel. No film can touch a page of the source novel, it will remain in tact forever unless the author revises it himself. The worst than can happen is the adapting filmmakers make a lousy film. The best that can happen is they make a great film inspired by the novel. But either way, the two shall never meet because they can’t. We get both products, in the end, and we all have free choice in taking all, one or none of them into our lives and imaginations.

      You’re utterly entitled to doubt this adaptation, in advance or otherwise. I’m waiting to see it first and I’ll judge it on its merits, not its method.

  2. I disagree. Its fair to say its difficult to judge a movie by a two-minute trailer and a sixty-character synopsis, but I wouldn’t forgoe the luxury of being critical. I would agree, it seems like many (maybe just the vocal) fans are piled up on one side of the see-saw, at times simply because the film is being told in real-time rather than as a post-war story, but filmedge seems to be seated firmly on the other side due to the story being difficult to adapt? I dont buy it.

    I look at a movie like Contagion; a very realistic, sprawling narrative of a novel virus that sweeps across the globe, told from the perspective of a long cast of compelling characters from all walks of life; Journalists, CDC Officials, WHO Epidemiologists, Researchers, Fathers, Daughters, etc. Its all done in real-time, with big name actors. World War Z, as we have seen, eliminates the very idea of multiple narratives, with Gerry Lane sort of shouldering the actual War out of the way in terms of tying the plot together. (And, at least for now all most people see when they look at Gerry Lane is Brad Pitt, so cut them some slack.)

    This seems like they’re leaning towards the easy, Roland Emmerich, Independence Day, 2012, Day after Tomorrow-route, which is a shame, and I’m not sure why being critical of that is really irrational.

    • Chris, of course I agree much more with this analysis now that we’ve seen more trailers, clips and info about WWZ. A CONTAGION-style approach could have worked to be more in line with the novel’s narrative, but then again I didn’t find it made for any more compelling of a film simply because of it, though it may have been effective. Also, with hordes of raging zombies, I can see that’s where all the money went (along with Pitt’s salary), so naturally there was none left for such a sprawling cast of known actors populating the world (a budgetary concern CONTAGION never had with few if any effects sequences).

      Of course, the development of this film has been such a mess that I can see a studio finally simplifying the story just to get the damned thing made and stop the financial bleeding. My hopes are indeed diminished for WWZ but I’m curious to see how it actually turns out.

      To clarify, I don’t think criticism of the first teaser trailer is irrational — you missed my point. I was addressing the knee-jerk reaction and jump to the conclusion that the film must be awful because its narrative style deviates from the novel — as so often happens when devoted fans of a novel immediately erupt into fan-panics when a ‘different’ adaptation is presented to them. Such ‘hysterical’ reactions and unfounded conclusions are what I considered irrational simply because they were based on such a tiny sampling of actual hard facts about the film — which, let’s face it, is often the job of a teaser trailer. I think back to the casting of Tom Cruise in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, which had devoted fans and the author herself going absolutely berserk, completely and immediately becoming unhinged by the news before he’d even stepped in front of the camera. Rice took out full page ads in protest of casting, etc. Upon release, the film was received very well and Rice ate her own words *once she actually saw his work*. Criticism is fine, obviously I not only support it on my FilmEdge site but practice it. But cranking up fanboy holy wars against films before they’re even seen to be judged and criticized *on their merits* accomplishes very little beyond giving voice to some very inflexible minds.

      When Spike Lee criticizes and bashes DJANGO UNCHAINED at length without having seen the film, I don’t put much stock in his analysis either. To me, that is not any form of rational criticism either.

      As I say, I’m much less enthused or supportive of the film’s approach by now, but that’s because I’ve seen and learned more about it beyond one small sampling. Glad you joined in the discussion, Chris, and thanks for your insightful comments.

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