Book: World War Z: The Art of the Film


Before sitting down to look at World War Z: The Art of the Film, I intended to finally see World War Z this week following its IMAX release. Unfortunately I ran short on time. It’s unfortunate since it would have added more to this full-color look at the production design of the film. The script for World War Z is included (though not with the original ending) along with small pull quotes from director Marc Forster, some of the stars, and members of the production team. It feels more like an illustrated screenplay, full of storyboards, images from animatics and concept art, and production stills.

Thumbing through the book and noticing its imagery, I was struck by how little of this I pictured when I read the Max Brooks novel few years ago. Our own Logan Otremba looked into the differences between the book and the movie at the end of May. (Have I heard right? There’s no Battle of Yonkers?)

What’s fascinating is that despite all the bad press going in about reshoots, bloodlessness, changes in outbreak origin, and being such a bloated/over-budget film, World War Z wound up somewhat profitable this summer, nearing $200 million in domestic receipts and at the cusp of $490 million for its worldwide total. And there’s likely going to be a sequel.

Last week, Scott Mendelson at Forbes published a piece on World War Z‘s surprising box office longevity. His conclusion was that the movie excelled at being merely okay enough. A fine example of C’s getting degrees. Mendelson wrote:

[World War Z] was that film that large groups could agree on, thanks to its live-action nature, its PG-13, it’s easy to explain premise (“Zombies!”), and the convenient fact that it happened to star Brad Pitt (movies stars still matter). It was the easy call for those who had already seen the weekend’s newest release but wanted to go to a movie anyway. It was suitably big and mainstream, yet inoffensive to all and off-putting to none. If you didn’t like geek-centric sci-fi franchises or animation, it was the blockbuster of choice for much of June and July. There will [be] few if any moviegoers calling it the best film of the summer, nor will many be calling it the worst.

Whereas Pacific Rim probably would have benefited (at least domestically) from coming out earlier in the big dumb summer, World War Z came out just at the right time. It was the safety school and dollar slice of blockbusters. World War Z probably even benefited from all the bad press. It wound up being not as bad as all the reports made it sound.

Maybe Mendelson’s assessment is a bit harsh considering all of the work that went into World War Z from a production standpoint. (Ditto my own slights at the film simply for being not like the book.) The Art of the Film shows how everyday Glasgow was transformed into a bustling metropolis, and how the designers created a large scope to fit the apparent big-action aspirations of the film. The ant-stack of zombies, even if it’s not the actions of a Brooks zombie, is compelling in its own way. There is something here to appreciate even with all my mental “even ifs.”

World War Z - "Airplane Attack" Clip

I think that’s the main thing I’ve noticed sitting with this book for some time now. There’s a pretty cool-looking zombie movie here, but it unfortunately has to be given the name of a really good book that’s nothing like the movie. The narrator of the novel takes a backseat to his interview subjects, even stating outright that while the book is about humanity, his own human presence should be removed. In the movie, it appears that he’s there, front and center, and rides the blockbuster formula rollercoaster. From what I’ve gathered in most assessments about the film, the book is more human.

On a recent episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, the hosts said something about adaptations that made a lot of sense. They said that Orange is the New Black works much better as a show than it would have as a movie. They also brought up Game of Thrones and how a show is superior to any film adaptation of those books. Whether it’s a Netflix original or something on cable, episodic storytelling allows more time to unpack scenes, develop relationships, and explore ideas. Even with changes or compromises to the source material, it really does seem like shows are better suited to many book adaptations. World War Z on HBO or Showtime would have played with perspectives from different sources, revealing a patchwork history of voices and exeperiences. There’d be steady world building from the ground level out. An entire season wouldn’t have cost $200 million either, and the show probably would have included the Battle of friggin’ Yonkers.

I sense something unrealized in the idea of a television adaptation of World War Z and even in The Art of the Film. The unmade show is some blank canvas in my head while the movie is saddled by my expectations given the book. When I eventually watch World War Z, I’ll try to appreciate what’s there given the effort by the design team and the filmmakers (very possibly not like the book at all) even though all I’ll be able to think about is what could have been (i.e., the book).

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.