Welcome to a new column called Geek Speak, in which we take on an aspect of geek culture each week.
After years of hype, numerous setbacks and rampant rumors of a troubled shoot, the big-screen adaptation of Max Brooks' World War Z, the greatest zombie novel of all time, is coming to theaters on Friday. And fans couldn't be more pissed.
The trailer reveals zombies that not only run, but act like army ants in some kind of hive-mind cooperative system. Just as bad, there's Brad Pitt's pretty-boy face trying to save the world. Needless to say, none of that was in the book. On millions of blog posts and forums, on Facebook and Twitter, and wherever angry nerds gather to gripe, the refrain is the same: They ruined the book!
When I met Max Brooks last year at the Zombie Town Hall, we talked briefly about the film. He was serenely nonchalant about the whole thing. To paraphrase, his take was that they had made a movie with the same title of his book. They didn't ruin the book, because hey, his book was still the book. In other words, all they can ruin is their movie -- no matter what happens, the book he wrote is still the same as it ever was.
That's an important point, so let me belabor is a bit. World War Z, the movie, did not ruin World War Z, the book. It cannot ruin World War Z the book. It's just not possible. Let's say, for the sake of argument, you go see the movie. And you hate it. It's awful and nonsensical and takes nothing from book, or maybe what it does take it twists it in some stupid way. Okay, that sucked. You just spent $10, plus whatever outrageous amount for snacks, to see a shitty movie.
But when you come home and open your copy of World War Z, the book you have known and loved, proselytized to friends and read over and over, is that book going to be any different? Is the storyline going to have somehow been altered to match the shitshow you saw on screen? Is Brad Pitt going to have been magically inserted into your favorite scenes? No! No matter what happens in that movie theater over the two hours you watch the movie, the book will be the same as it ever was.
But wait, you say -- what they ruined was the chance for the story you love to be made into a movie. Instead we got this thing with Brad Pitt and running zombies acting like army ants and because of that, there will never be a movie that lived up to the one in your head while you read the book. To this I say, "eh, so it goes."
Look, this was all but a foregone conclusion when the book rights were sold. It almost always is, and with a book as non-Hollywood friendly as World War Z there was no chance for a "pure" adaptation. There's no main character! The book is written as a series of interviews compiled into a comprehensive report to the UN about the history of a years-long conflict! What the fuck was Hollywood going to do with that? Of course it was going to turn it into a big dumb action movie with zombies! I'm not even sure the book as written could be made into a movie, at least not one of reasonable length. Maybe a six-part faux documentary, which would be totally sweet, but not a two-hour movie that people -- and by this I mean people who weren't already rabid fans of the book and/or the zombie genre in general, not people like you and me -- would go pay $10 to see in a theater during the summer blockbuster season.
If it sucks, just blame this guy
And there's always the chance that the movie they made, despite bearing almost no resemblance to a book you love that it shares a title with, might actually be a good movie. Or at least a fun movie. It does happen, and if you're too busy being a slavish fanboy to notice, you could miss out on something sweet. When the Starship Troopers film came out, I was so outraged at the deviations from Robert Heinlein's novel that I refused to see it for years. Even when I did finally watch it, I was so intent on hating it that I simply failed to notice that it was actually completely awesome. It took me another few years to realize that the movie is actually an incredible send up of the book, a brilliant forecast of the fascist future we seem to be hurtling toward and a crackerjack sci-fi action flick, all rolled up into one brilliant package. It's also a damn sight better than Heinlein's novel.
Now that's almost certainly not going to be the case here -- World War Z is simply the finest zombie apocalypse novel ever written, and I'd be shocked if the film broke into my top ten -- but that doesn't mean it won't be a decent way to pass two hours on a hot summer evening. Or if not, maybe those stories of troubled development are all true and it will end up being one of those one-of-a-kind disasterpieces of a film, so unspeakably awful that it's actually wonderful.
Besides, no matter which of those turns out to be true, this is Hollywood. They remake everything, all the time. Who's to say that someone won't pick it up in a decade, dust it off, and give it the meticulously accurate treatment that we all dreamed of before Brad Pitt came along? In the meantime, give the movie a chance. Let it succeed or fail on its own merits. And remember, no matter what happens, you'll always have the book you fell in love with the first time around, and Brooks will always have whatever obscene amount of money Hollywood paid him to borrow its title. Heck, maybe it will even inspire some kid who hasn't read the book to pick it up afterward, meaning a new fan, more money for Brooks, and maybe even yet another person to chime in about how much better the book was than the movie. That's a win for everyone.
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