The general assessment that I’ve seen regarding World War Z is that it’s a perfectly serviceable zombie action movie, but it is emphatically not like the book by Max Brooks on which it’s based. Having seen the movie now, I generally agree. If it had been titled something different, this movie might not have received the animus that was accorded it by people who really enjoyed the original book.
Of course, World War Z has been out for a couple years now, so this is probably no great surprise to anyone who’s interested in the movie. What I think is of interest is looking at how the movie differs from the book, and trying to figure out why the filmmakers decided to deviate so dramatically.
First, let’s discuss the basic differences between the stories. The movie focuses on Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations field worker whose specialty is determining the origins of virulent diseases when outbreaks occur. After the zombie virus emerges, Lane gets conscripted to go looking for the origins of the disease so that a cure might be found, and thus he’s off on a globetrotting adventure to solve the mystery of the zombies. In the book there’s not really any central protagonist, since the format is as an oral history being told after the end of the zombie war. Instead of maintaining a core plot, the book functions mostly as a series of short stories set within this imagined world, following various people and describing their experiences surviving the crisis. In many ways it’s a very sedate book, as the immediate terror of being faced with the threat of zombies is overshadowed with the reflective horror at the kinds of things people either did or saw others do when things were at their worst.
So given the vast differences between the basic plots, we should also consider how the two versions of the story are similar. The movie contains a handful of references to slang and concepts explored in the book, such as soldiers referring to the zombies as “zeke” and the emergency government developing a system of classification for refugees based on skillset and physical ability (the major impetus for Lane to even agree to going on his mission is the implicit threat that his family will be transferred to a less secure refugee camp as nonessential personnel if he doesn’t cooperate). Both are interested in looking at a zombie apocalypse on a global scale, with the movie devoting most of its running time to a slew of set pieces in different locales that highlight how the outbreak has been handled around the world, and the book discussing how various governments address the problem (my personal favorite story is how Cuba manages the crisis wonderfully because of their isolation from America and their government’s extensive control over travel in and out of the country). Beyond that general interest, there’s very little to compare though.
The first and most obvious thing that explains the difference in story is the medium. If World War Z had been written as a traditionally plotted novel, then a straightforward adaptation to film would have been relatively easy, but because it’s more a collection of small stories that inform the larger story through a mosaic of details, the feature film format demanded some restructuring (I think that if the creators had wanted to make an adaptation that maintained greater fidelity to the plot of the source material, they should have developed a television series instead; an episodic format would perfectly complement the fragmented narrative of Brooks’s book). I can understand why the filmmakers would develop a brand new plot centered around one character that was designed to incorporate small nods to the source while telling its own version of events. I can also see that it’s likely the filmmakers were anticipating incorporating more things from the source material in a sequel (the ending is very clearly designed to set up the possibility for more stories set in this universe), but I think they overestimated how willing fans would be to go along with some of the significant changes they made in order to serve their desire to make an action movie.
Anyone who’s read World War Z knows that the zombies described in the book are of the traditional Romero style; they’re shambling corpses that only die when the brain is destroyed, and the incubation period for infection is somewhat prolonged. In the movie, everything about the zombies is sped up; they run quickly, infection is nearly instantaneous, and for some reason the zombies when in large enough numbers are able to work in concert to create human ladders that can scale vertical walls. This version is based more closely on the type of zombies that were first popularized in 28 Days Later, and while they make for good antagonists in an action movie, they’re not the kind of threat that produced the speculation found in World War Z. Fast zombies invoke terror more easily, but since the source material for World War Z is more interested in horror, the implacable nature of slow zombies works better for exploring the stress that comes from gradually realizing you’re facing an enemy that won’t stop coming.
Maybe someday someone will take another shot at adapting World War Z (maybe in a few decades when zombies capture the popular imagination again), and if that happens I hope that the creators take a little more time to consider what format best fits with the kind of story that the book tells, and respects why certain elements of the world are in place. In the mean time, if you want a good adaptation, look for the audiobook version of World War Z. It doesn’t contain all of the material found in the book, but there’s a full cast of narrators who do an amazing job (Mark Hamill is featured as one of the soldiers who survives the pivotal Battle of Yonkers). It’s definitely my favorite version of the story.