The “World War Z” Trailer and Insufferable Genre Fans

Posted: November 12, 2012 in Film, Literature, Post-apocalyptic fiction
Tags: , , , , , ,

The initial trailer for the film adaptation (and I use this term loosely) of Max Brooks’ 2006 novel World War Z premiered last week. I’ll get to my take on it in a minute, but the most noticeable and interesting thing about the trailer’s release was the amount of negative backlash toward it from fans of the book. From what I saw on twitter, comments on the trailer’s youtube, and elsewhere, the level of discontent from fans was (is?) at levels I think of as usually reserved for older, or at least more, I dunno, “canonical” books and characters (Beowulf and certain adaptations of Alan Moore come immediately to mind).  Not that some genre fans don’t get all uppity about even the slightest changes made when their beloved, recent texts are translated to film, and often understandably so, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of ongoing hatred toward a film that, to be honest, looks like it could be quite good.

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking about science fiction, post-apocalyptic stories, horror, and the like, and who is a fan of said genres, I understand being nitpicky about changes made and pointing out why they make sense or don’t. I am also a huge fan of Brooks’ novel, and have taught it in a college Intro to Fiction course with great success. I’m sympathetic to gripes about changes, but the people condemning the film entirely are going too far in a way that makes them look like foolish Star Wars dorks. Here’s why: There’s absolutely NO WAY you could create a faithful film adaptation of this book (as Arleigh over at Through the Shattered Lens rightly notes, this faithful version would need to be done as a serial on [cable] TV). It’s just not possible. Additionally, since the film began production and info about it started being leaked, fans of the novel who were paying attention have known about certain changes and should probably be resigned to a very different story than the one they loved.

So, to my mind, the bulk of loudmouth, purist fans trashing a film they haven’t seen are engaging in a kind self-important rhetoric without any real function beyond proving that they read it first and are “better” genre fans than those who are willing to say they’ll see the film with an open mind and may even like it.  They posture that they won’t even watch it but will spend hours online telling everyone else why it will be so awful.  They’re kind of like the kid back in school who knew everything about Star Wars or Harry Potter or whatever and who lived for being a genre pedant who talked down to you and ruined it for everyone else.  Such behavior is reactionary and dumb and fundamentally anti-fun.

That said, I would argue that the film version of World War Z, so far as the trailer lets on,does deviate significantly enough from the novel that it would be right, or at least in better faith, to retitle it something else with a sub-title explaining “inspired by Max Brooks’ World War Z” (an argument I’d also make, though more emphatically, for the poorly titled, Will Smith vehicle I am Legend).  Or, even better, let it slip into more fictional territory and say: “Based on the true accounts of the zombie war as told in Max Brooks’ World War Z.” To nitpick a bit, the title actually was already apparently changed to omit the subtitle “An Oral History of the Zombie War.” And I’m actually surprised that Brooks didn’t push for something like this given that the entire structure of the storytelling (ie, the multivocal, Studs Terkel-inspired, interview format) seems to have been replaced or sidelined in favor of a pretty standard action, hero’s p.o.v. format.  That and retaining the title as “new” for the possibility of doing it in the novel’s style via a serialized, episodic TV format down the road.  But I guess WWZ is a catchy title, so I won’t let this usage ruin my potential for enjoying the film they are actually making.

So, here’s the trailer.  A few thoughts on it vis-a-vis the novel after the cut:

Overall, I think this has the potential to be an excellent action/horror film.  Visually it look great and the settings are rendered very well.  Part of this is the emphasis on the sheer number of zombies (or infected, if you must), which is a crucial element to the book’s revision of a large swath of existing zombie fiction that doesn’t take into account the practicality of traditional fighting when faced with such an enemy.  The scale of the conflict and menace of the zombies is reinforced vey well via the crane and helicopter shots in the trailer, and that alone will make this different than any film of the sort I can think of.

Adding to this scale and overall menace is one of the elements fans are complaining about: the zombies are runners (and apparently swarmers who crawl over one another and form human pyramids and waves and bridges and other frightening stuff).  Zombie purists (though not Vodoun zombie purists, which is another can of worms entirely) hate runners; they insist on Romero’s shambling zombies as the only kind that is okay.  I feel bad for such people; their conservative genre limits mean they have to discard films like 28 Days Later from their cannon.

In reality, fast zombies usually just make more sense in a realistic scenario based on infection, and they make the situation more perilous.  There are reasons Brooks used shambling zombies in the book, but not such vital ones to not make this change in a film adaptation.

The trailer also incorporates several elements from the book that are important in how Brooks updated the genre, and these will hopefully be explained as the action unfolds in the film. The scenes with pursuing zombies plunging off tall buildings is one of these things; you rarely see shambling zombies do this despite their purported stupidity, and it hopefully means that other realistic (yeah, I know) approaches as to how to kill zombies will be retained.

Despite all this, I’m disappointed that it appears we again have the familiar action/adventure set-up with an exceptional man who will need to leave his family at the behest of government forces to become the reluctant hero (I’m sure he’ll defy the government at some point too, just to prove it is the exceptional individual we should adore).  This crap is so tired, and it is a point where I will side fully with the unhappy fans of the novel.  The story doesn’t require a superman who saves the world, and the persistence of this hero myth in Hollywood films and American culture in general is really annoying.

I also don’t think Brad Pitt is right for the lead.  I know why he is in the role, and have read that he apparently did not want it and is only there because of getting the damn film done.  Still, he doesn’t fit the part for me, even if I’m not sure exactly what the part is going to be.

Finally, things from the book I hope they include for those who’ve read the book (written to avoid spoilers, but those who’ve read it will hopefully know what I mean and should feel free to respond in the comments): Patient Zero, Ferals, Redeker Plan, North Korea, Whales, K-9 units, the restucturing/revaluing of work, and the Japanese Otaku/Hibakusha story.


  1. sarahsss says:

    I haven’t read the book so my reaction to the trailer is relatively ‘pure’ and I just think it looks dumb–tired and hackneyed as you’ve said.

  2. Arleigh says:

    I, too, believe that this film should be judged once it’s out and people have seen it. I would even ask people to just ignore the title and just base their opinion of the film on what they see on the screen. On just the trailer alone WWZ looks to be a mash-up of the Irwin Allen-style of disaster flicks of the 70’s and 80’s and the very fun and much-maligned Emmerich 2012.

    I’ve already seen how the trailer evokes Emmerich’s disaster film but with zombies. Doesn’t bother me since I know for a fact that this WWZ will not ruin the love I have for the source material. I call the reaction similar to the sort of reaction Tolkien-purists had when the LOTR trilogy came out.

    How dare Jackson remove Tom Bombadil from the film. The elves of Lothlorien never fought side-by-side with Rohan at Helm’s Deep. Or where the hell is the Scouring of the Shire.

    I, for one, would love if Brook’s novel was adapted faithfully but to do so would mean a film that would run even longer than the entire LOTR combined (the extended editions). I still believe that the book would be best served becoming an HBO series to allow for the scale and scope of the narrative to be fully told.

    I can see why Paramount decided to make the changes to the film’s screenplay. For one on the business side of things a film that has a budget between 150-200 million dollars would need a lot of people to see it for it to break even. As big as the fan-base for the novel has become it’s still a fan-base that’s mostly into genre fiction. Even some people I know who are deeply into genre only give WWZ a cursory glance and wonder why all the love.

    WWZ is a project I saw as something that would be changed the moment the decision to make it into a film was greenlit. If I have anything to nitpick the film on based on the trailer it would be the clearly CGI-look of the zombies acting like an unstoppable wave (some have called their movement like a horde of fire ants on the move. Which just makes me smile since the book does describe them as such.). I don’t mind running zombies, but I do prefer the Romero-style (and for the record with each zombie film Romero made his zombies actually moved much faster than the previous Dead film).

    I’ll be in line to see World War Z when it comes out. It’s being pushed as a summer blockbuster-type film and if the people at Paramount saved most of the money-shots out of the trailer then this WWZ film may just be one rollercoaster of a ride. I’ll probably be reading my tenth copy of the book while in line.

    • nightwork says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’m with you on the bulk of this, and I probably overstated the simple runners/shamblers dichotomy, esp. with regard to Romero.

      Personally, I’m not all that bothered by the CGI of the zombie “waves” in the trailer, though. I think it might be a bit of fatigue with this genre (in film) at this point that makes me okay with it–it looks different from the bulk of past films and looks genuinely frightening if you get past the obviousness of the effects.

  3. mike says:

    Bashing genre fans is for getting upset about the zombies being runners and for changing the narrative is a very poorly thought out argument.

    1.) Runners. This has NOTHING to do with being a “purist” of any kind. Fast zombies are great! 28 days later is awesome! But World War Z is NOT 28 days later. All of us wanted to see World War Z. This film is not that – it’s another Zombie end of the world film… which could still be great, but don’t call it World War Z.

    So when you say “Hey, so what if they’re runners”. Well THAT – IS the biggest problem with the movie being based on the book – because now with runners, it’s NOT based on the book. These zombies are a totally new character (and the basis of the story) so thus, it’s not based on the book at all – again, now it’s just a zombie apocalypse movie. When reading the book, one envisions the slow, steady horde of Zombies. That’s the main foundation! It’s not a purist thing, it’s wanting to see THAT reality. The reality of the book. World War Z is such a good book because you believe it feels real. And this makes it scary. You take a science fiction concept and place it in the real world and how the real world reacts to it. Scary.

    2.) As for the narrative – I’m a screenwriter. It is NOT impossible to adapt the book into a movie. Yes, a lot needs to be changed in terms of story telling, but there are a dozen ways to combine a present day hero story with a post war perspective on it. (voice over, a diary, a presentation to a special government committee, etc… then flashback to the lead’s story and perhaps how he interacts with other survivors and hears their stories.

    Lastly, when you have something so gripping, so intense and exciting, WHY change EVERYTHING about it? This seems like a typical “studio” decision. It may make money, but I promise – had then been even 50% faithful to the book and (story and zombies) it would have KILLED at the box office and had the chance to be an all time classic genre movie. Now, it’s just a “product”. Terrible waste of brilliant material and a short sighted article by someone who foolishly misses the entire point of why this movie being called World War Z is such a disaster. I hope the movie will be good. I’ll see it for sure. But I hope one day that someone makes the film World War Z that is actually based on the book.