The Book and Movie Date: World War Z

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The Movie Date is a weekly feature where we discuss movies that may appeal to YA readers. Andrew is The Reading Date’s resident movie critic and this week he has a book and movie twofer review of World War Z.

“The monsters that rose from the dead, they are nothing compared to the ones we carry in our hearts.”
– Admiral Xu Zhicai, World War Z, Max Brooks

World War Z movie poster

Undead zombies tend to bring out the worst in us, the still-living. In the first modern zombie film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, nearly all the conflict was between the trapped humans themselves, not against their shuffling, rotting foes. Since then, the best zombie stories have focused on the often-selfish struggle of humans to survive the attack. Because let’s face it: Warm Bodies aside, zombies aren’t very interesting: they can’t talk and they don’t think. They’re not exactly cunning adversaries.World War Z book

Max Brooks’ novel World War Z wisely focuses on the man-on-man battles during a horrific global zombie apocalypse. It’s fiction written as nonfiction; it announces itself as an “oral history” of the pandemic, written several years after mankind somehow survives the catastrophe. True to form it’s a series of interviews, with no central protagonist. We hear from military leaders and soldiers, politicians, medical experts, and dozens of other observers as they recount the challenge in understanding the plague and surviving the attacking hordes of undead. Many of the speakers have secrets to hide or are defensive about their choices; it’s clear that our enemies are not just the zombies but human selfishness, pride, and confusion. It’s a gripping, well-researched, and frankly brilliant portrait of a world teetering on the brink of the abyss.

The film World War Z takes place in the same universe as the novel but takes no events or characters from it. We follow suburban dad Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as he drives his wife (Mireille Enos, The Killing) and kids into downtown Philadelphia. Suddenly a zombie outbreak erupts, instantly converting thousands of citizens (via zombie bites) into walking dead. Because Lane is a former United Nations task force member, he and his family are extracted to a sanctuary aboard an aircraft carrier. But to earn his family’s right to stay, Lane must set off for North Korea and the Middle East to uncover the zombie plague’s origin. Gerry Lane’s thrilling storyline doesn’t appear within the pages of Max Brooks’ novel, but it easily could have. Again, there’s plenty of human conflict as each person Lane visits is suspicious of his motives and reluctant to put himself at risk helping him.

Just to be clear, this is not a horror film, a la the many Living Dead films and most zombie movies. Rather it uses the backdrop of the zombie plague to tell a engaging sci-fi adventure story; the feel is similar to Independence Day. There’s no shortage of action, but most violence takes place offscreen and there’s a minimum of gore (it is a PG-13 pic, after all). And there’s more going on here than massive zombie battles. Some of the best sequences take place quietly in enclosed spaces (a stairwell, a plane, a research lab), with characters moving quietly to avoid alerting the zombies and starting a swarm. (Director Marc Forster isn’t just an action director; he brought us Stranger than Fiction, Finding Neverland, and Monster’s Ball, and this film displays his sensitive spirit.)

I’m not a big fan of the zombie genre (too often it’s used as a way of offering guilt-free violence and gore) but I really enjoyed both the book and the film. And happily enjoying one won’t spoil the other for you, since the stories in each are so different. Both are zombie entertainments with braaaaains (sorry).

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11 thoughts on “The Book and Movie Date: World War Z

  1. Usually, I’ll refuse to watch a movie before reading the book, but on this rare occasion, I’ve seen the movie but haven’t read World War Z. I loved the movie, and I think I’ll pick up the book soon – I’m glad they aren’t too closely related as it means I get to enjoy them both equally. It’s strange, here in the UK, World War Z was rated 15, but there wasn’t much blood or gore at all! I’m surprised it wasn’t rated a 12A. Then again, I did have a few nightmares afterwards, despite being 22 years old…

  2. Tammy Sparks says:

    I’m really looking forward to both the book and the movie! I’m happy to hear this isn’t a gore-fest, which means I’m more likely to take my kids to see it:) Thanks for the great review, Andrew!

  3. Kelley says:

    Excellent write-up, Andrew – thank you! Ever since reading World War Z back in May, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I want to see the movie, since it seemed so different from the book. Even though that IS the case, it sounds like you still enjoyed the movie. I might not be rushing to the theater to see it, but I’ll still watch it eventually. I think I’ll just have to treat it as if it’s got nothing to do with the book, maybe.

  4. BermudaOnion says:

    My son really enjoyed the book but I don’t know if he’s seen the movie. I’m not much of a zombie person so I’ll probably skip both.

  5. fishgirl182 says:

    thanks for the review, andrew. i love a good zombie movie. i’d heard mixed things about this one. glad to know that you liked it. i am a fan of the book and, even though the movie sounds very different, i still think i am going to like it.

  6. Book Blather says:

    My friend loved the book but said it was hard for her to imagine how they could turn it into a book with any sort of continuity running through it. She was going to see it last night, so doubtless I shall get a full report soon!

  7. Rory says:

    From watching the previews (I haven’t seen the film), the two looked nothing alike. I’m glad to know they are both enjoyable, but it seems a little silly to base a movie on a book and then have very little to do with the book. It was good source material, if hard to adapt. Looking forward to adding this one to my list of movies to see.

  8. […] Anyone else wondering about the World War Z movie, Andrew wrote a great book-to-movie comparison. […]

  9. I was wondering…I couldn’t conceive how this movie tied into the short-story, novella style of the book. It doesn’t. Wild. I wasn’t crazy about the book, because it only touched the surface of all these different people. I’ll give the movie a go 😉

  10. Kristina says:

    II just went see this one Saturday. Loved it!!! Great review. Now I guess I need to go back and read the book.

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      Thanks Kristina, I think you’ll love it!

      And thanks to everyone else for your great comments. I see that (somewhat unusually for an apocalyptic type film) there are discussions of making a sequel to WWZ. One thing from the book I hope they include are the underwater battles—yes, since zombies don’t breathe air, they can stay submerged indefinitely, making them a hidden, lingering menace. Hordes of the undead emerging from the waves and marching onto the beaches? Yes please!

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