I don’t really think it’s possible to make a movie of World War Z, which is basically a kind of public policy review document. I also don’t think that the new movie is a particularly good first attempt, but it is a lot of fun. As an adaptation of the book it has so many obvious problems – not least of them that nothing that happens in the book is actually in the movie – that it clearly stinks. It changes the personality and job description of the main character, who is now some kind of crack investigator for the UN with experience in investigating troublespots (do these people even exist in the UN structure?); it changes the origin of the zombiepocalypse from a Chinese dam to a US military base in Korea; it has Israel collapsing near the beginning of the epidemic; and it presents a completely different resolution to the whole problem, one that is much, much less cynical than the horrible tragedy that unfolds in the book. It also doesn’t present a series of accounts from different protagonists collected after the fact, and the best we can do is pinch ourselves and pretend that this movie is a kind of prequel to the book, the story of what the book’s (unnamed?) narrator did during the first horrible days of the apocalypse. From memory we never find this out in the book, and indeed the narrator seems to have emerged from the zombiepocalypse largely untouched by it, unlike any of his interviewees.
It is in this, however, that the movie is most faithful to the book: where the book is a kind of disaster tourism, traveling from trouble spot to trouble spot and zeroing in (mostly) on people whose suffering was genuinely terrible, in the movie we travel from troublespot to troublespot and watch Brad Pitt somehow survive while all around him goes to hell. Everyone in Jerusalem gets eaten alive, but Brad is on the last plane out of there by the most extreme strokes of luck you can conceive of. Sure, he cops a beating and so do those with him (the few who survive, anyway); but compared to what’s going down as he runs away he’s veritably blessed.
And “Jerry” does do a lot of running for a crack investigator, not that you can really blame him given the (literally overwhelming) odds he faces in every circumstance. The movie has a very good pace, from the first encounter with the zombies to the last (slightly jarring) creepy encounter. The pace and frenetic efforts of the survivors are enhanced by slightly beefing up the zombies compared to the book: these zombies don’t shuffle, but run in chaotic gangs and attack with suicidal intent. They keep the hording properties described in the book, and in the movie they can behave like ants, forming self-organizing bridges to get at prey sources and overwhelming almost any defence with their weight and collective aggression. Street scenes with people running and panicking are great because you can’t tell who is what, and in amongst the chaos people and monsters are flying in every direction, getting up, being broken, giving up, fleeing and dying. The movie also focuses on those first few days when society is failing, rather than (as often happens in zombie movies) picking up once the damage has been done and the survivors are on the run. That’s very much what we saw in the book too, and gives a sense of coherence with the book when every individual aspect of the story is completely different.
The movie also completely changes the “ending” of the zombiepocalypse, coming up with a different solution to the problem and straying widely from the cynicism of the story. I guess the solution makes sense in a narrative and figurative (if not scientific) sense but it didn’t satisfy me, but I accept it was necessary – you can’t put the original solution into a movie easily because it was by nature a systemic and policy solution, not a magic bullet, and they don’t fit into a two hour movie.
Which brings me to a final point about this genre in general: modern television has killed the zombie movie. Specifically, The Walking Dead has shown that the best medium for zombie stories is television, not cinema. This is because zombie stories are primarily about the small desperation of ordinary people, gangs of survivors, not about big special effects, and the dramas unfold slowly over long times, as people starve and get alienated and fight and die. You can’t show this stuff easily in cinema, but you can unravel a group of desperate no-hopers over 12 brutal hours on television very nicely. Similarly, you could do a very nice version of World War Z on television, with a different account each week building to a broad story arc about both the original disaster, its causes and its solutions and even about the rebuilding process. You can’t do that at the movies, which is why this movie is a completely faithless rendition of the book.
Still, it’s a really fun movie. There are some clips on youtube (including an illegal 8 minute clip of the Jerusalem scenes) which should help to show the tension and pace of the movie. If you’re into zombie movies and don’t care about a great book being completely corrupted for cinema, then I recommend this movie. If you are one of those fanboys who gets irate if even the smallest detail of your much-loved canon is corrupted, then steer clear, because this one will make you pop a gasket!