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The fact that "World War Z" didn't turn out to be the incoherent, unwatchable disaster its much-publicized production problems seemed to herald has been the main subject of discussion regarding the epic Brad Pitt zombie action thriller. But let's not forget the somewhat smaller undead elephant in the room: This is an adaptation of "World War Z," the 2006 book by Max Brooks, essentially in name only.
"That's pretty much all it has," Brooks said in 2012, indicating that the title is the only thing Pitt's film has in common with his book.
Pitt's production company, Plan B, waded through a bidding war with Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way in 2006, eventually winning the movie rights to Brooks's "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" for $1 million.
And the author's non-involvement was baked into the deal. "That was pretty much the last decision I was allowed to make," Brooks said of his decision to sell his story rights to Pitt. "At some point I was allowed to read the script after the cameras were rolling, and I said, 'Quite honestly, there's no point.'"
The film's now-notorious production troubles included having no fewer than four successive writers hired to overhaul the screenplay. Plan B first hired J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of "Babylon 5," whose early drafts actually sort of resembled Brooks's book ... though that apparently didn't fly with director Marc Forster.
"Marc wanted to make a big, huge action movie that wasn't terribly smart and had big, huge action pieces in it," said Straczynski in an interview with Vanity Fair. "If all you wanted to do was an empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?"
Straczynski turned in another draft, which attempted to pump up the action more to Forster's liking, but it was decidedly not well received. "They slammed the door so hard in my face it came off the hinges," said Straczynski. Plan B then hired Matthew Michael Carnahan, known for political dramas like "Lions for Lambs" (2007) and "The Kingdom" (2007), to rework the script.
Carnahan's pass scrapped the book's "oral history" structure of a collection of first-person interviews and focused on a single former United Nations field specialist and family man named Gerry Lane, who is not a character in Brooks's novel (well, he kind of is, but we'll get to that later). The movie became an action adventure about a man fighting off zombie hordes as he tries to reunite with his wife and kids.
After the movie was shot, J.J. Abrams's frequent collaborator Damon Lindelof ("Lost," "Star Trek") was brought in when Pitt and Paramount execs were unhappy with the film's ending. Lindelof enlisted the help of his friend and colleague Drew Goddard, and they wrote an entirely new third act, which upped the cost of the already woefully overbudget project.
So, in asking how "World War Z" the movie is different from "World War Z" the book, the general answer is: in every way possible. But here are four major differences that illustrate just how unalike the two really are.
1. Narrative structure.
Max Brooks's book is "An Oral History of the Zombie War," a story told with multiple narrators and storylines. The "present day" of the book is significantly after the war, with several survivors telling their harrowing tales and creating a global perspective on the epidemic.
When Brad Pitt optioned Brooks's book, many fans speculated that the film version might incorporate a structure similar to that of "Interview With the Vampire" (1994), in which Pitt's vampire protagonist Louis recounted his long life (or, rather, undead) story to a journalist (Christian Slater) in a hotel room. While Straczynski's first draft may have resembled something like this, the "oral history" and documentary-like structure has been scrapped from the film completely, as it is now a more traditional third-person "hero's journey" narrative — and one that takes place during the outbreak of the epidemic rather than as a memory (or rather, memories) of it.
As discussed above, Brooks's book has several "heroes," with several different countries represented. When your movie stars Brad Pitt, however, he kind of needs to be front and center in action-hero mode, making it yet another Hollywood disaster film in which an American proves to be the most effective responder to a worldwide crisis.
Pitt's character, former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane, actually does appear in the book ... sort of. The interviews with the various international characters are being collected by an unnamed U.N. employee, who is gathering research on the catastrophe to evaluate what it has done to humanity. If anything, this person could be seen as the "main character" of the book, though the role obviously had to be considerably tweaked for the movie because, well, Brad Pitt doesn't do desk jobs. (There are very few opportunities for your hair to blow dramatically in the wind when you're stuck in an office.)
3. Turning the tide.
Arguably, the most memorable and popular account in the book is the one that describes the Battle of Yonkers, which serves as a major turning point in the war.
"America lost whatever was left of its 'exceptionalism,' its identity vanquished because the military's pre-zombie superiority turned out to be, well, useless," wrote Kelley B. Vlahos at AntiWar.com of the crippling Yonkers battle.
Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane doesn't go anywhere near Yonkers in the film. His journey takes him from Philadelphia to North Korea to Israel, which ends up being the story's crucial set piece and turning point as a part of the world that has managed to stay mostly unaffected becomes overrun with swarms of the undead.
Brooks believes omitting the Battle of Yonkers will be the most disappointing aspect of the film for fans of his book.
"I feel much worse for [my fans] than I would ever feel for me," said Brooks in an interview at Mansfield University. "There are college kids who have been waiting to see the Battle of Yonkers since they were in junior high school."
4. Ground zero.
This might ultimately be the most "Hollywood" of all the differences, at least in terms of the reason behind it.
In Brooks's book, the epidemic originates in China. In the movie, however, "ground zero" is first believed to be North Korea, but it ends up being India. This change isn't a random one — the focus was moved away from China to help increase the film's chances for success at the international box office, according to the article in Vanity Fair:
Because the story took Pitt around the world, the movie would be easy to market internationally, executives reasoned. And Paramount planned to convert the movie into 3-D, a big draw for Russian, Brazilian and Chinese audiences, which meant the studio could earn a substantially higher price over regular tickets.
Indeed, China, which limits the number of foreign movies imported yearly, is so important that, Paramount said, the filmmakers deleted a reference to intercepted e-mails from China, where, in Brooks' book, the zombie scourge originates. Rob Moore, vice-chairman of Paramount Pictures, said the film has not yet been screened by Chinese censors. But, he said, 'China has become the second-biggest market, and we evaluate how things play there.'
China has indeed become a major factor in the strategic marketing and release campaigns of Hollywood blockbusters. Certain scenes in "Iron Man 3" were shot specifically — and exclusively — for the version of the film that was screened in China.
Ultimately, the book and the film of "World War Z" are probably best enjoyed when they're considered to be two completely different entities ... at least according to the guy responsible for the former.
"See the movie as the movie; judge the movie as the movie," said Brooks. "You may like it. You may be blown away. You may not be blown away. But if it's not like the book ... you shouldn't expect that."
"World War Z" is now in theaters as well as bookstore shelves.