I recently saw World War Z at a local Carmike theater, and while it was fun I ended up feeling like I had just watched a generic zombie film, and not a World War Z film. Where the book is one of the greatest pieces of zombie media ever made, the film instead missed the mark on what makes the whole zombie genre interesting. In a way this will be a double review as I will discuss what features made the book special, and how the loss of those features made the film feel generic.
The first difference between the two Zs is the main (or in the book’s case “main”) character. In the book the main character is just a conduit through which the stories of World War Z could be told. We never heard the narrator’s story except for how it was his job to collect the stories of the world in order to figure out exactly how the “zompocalypse” started and got out of control (the book then being his personal creation in order to preserve the stories he heard in the process). Meanwhile the movie follows the story of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as he first rescues his family and then investigates how the zompocalypse started. Unfortunately because of this change we only get a single story and a single perspective on the zombie problem. Now, it’s true that Gerry’s story tries to cover the same international scope as he book, but unfortunately we are only shown one part of the United States and Israel. Now, if you’ve seen the movie you may argue that I left out a few locations, but I would argue that these locations didn’t expand the international scope of the movie at all. For example, the Korean segment took place on a United States military base populated by Americans. We saw nothing of the Korean culture or struggle. Since a movie can only be about two hours it’s forgivable for it to leave out a vast majority of the international stories, but it’s kind of sad that only Israel was allowed to be foreign. While this is an unfortunate change, it doesn’t make the movie bad, but the fact that Gerry’s story wasn’t in the book, and we aren’t really told any of the stories from the book (not even the Battle of Yonkers? Really!?) makes the movie feel like it’s not actually related.
Another difference between the book and the movie is the behavior of the zombies. Again, this difference doesn’t make the movie bad, but it further pushes the movie away from the World War Z name. In the book the zombies moved slowly, groaned loudly, bled black goo, and attacked everything in sight and reach. But in the movie the zombies ran, groaned loudly, and [spoiler] ignored humans with terminal illnesses. I assume the speed change was done because movie-goers only like speed-zombies (except for the great successes of Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and Fido to name a few). This change alone isn’t bad, but the change the change I hid due to spoilers is exceptionally bad. It opens up multiple plot holes and gives way to an awful ending. It is also at the center of what actually makes the World War Z movie bad instead of just a generic “didn’t follow the book” film.
The final core difference that I want to discuss is the ending. Both the movie and the book end on high notes. I didn’t spoiler tag that since the book is written as a historical recollection, and thus it makes no sense for it to end with “everybody dies.” The movie is the same as the entire world finds a way to solve the zombie problem. But where the book does this by showing human perseverance, ingenuity, and grit; the movie instead gives us a “magic bullet.” It takes the humanity out of humanity’s solution to zombies. It takes out the political intrigue and cultural significance of how each community eventually survived the zompocalypse. It once again makes the movie into a generic zombie film that happens to share titles with an amazing book.
But what makes this generic film actively bad? It lacked proper focus. The movie focused on the zombies. It focused on what they do, how they act, and how horrible they are. While all of those things are true, it is also true that zombies are usually painted as simplistic creatures who operate in predictable and uninteresting ways which can be abused. This means zombies aren’t very interesting to explore, and even within their narrative lose their threat factor (compare The Walking Dead’s first season to its third season to see my point). The genre of zombies isn’t interesting because of zombies, it’s interesting because of people. How would people act in a zombie-filled apocalypse/post-apocalypse? That is what is interesting. The book does a fantastic job of exploring people, and only references zombies as they are needed within the setting. The movie instead makes a point of focusing on the zombies, and in fact chooses a zombie-focused plotline (Gerry must discover where zombies came from in order to find a solution). We are given snippets of humans during the film. We get to see how the military begins to cut out nonessential personnel from rescue ships and how Israel became a beacon of hope. But those are only snippets. The vast majority of the film is Gerry fighting/running away from/investigating zombies.
While I would love to recommend the movie because it does share some nice features with the book, and I hate to ever say, “The book was much better than the movie.” this is one instance where I can’t help but say, “Ignore the movie and just read the book.” They are different enough that they should be viewed as two separate entities, and the changes the movie chose to make ended up turning it into a disappointing feature.