World War Z without Brad Pitt

It’s very rare in the modern day to be able to read a book, watch it’s film adaptation, and still find no faults between them. Very rare. But here, after ploughing through an entire series of The Walking Dead books, the faults of which I outlined before both as a novel and as an on-screen version, I found a winner.

The above is actually incorrect, that is, in phrasing of course. I’d actually seen Max Brooks’ novel in the film version six months ago, long before Waterstones got paid a holiday visit from Kyle and his gift card. So when a quick google search informed me the movie and book were pretty much different in all but name, I wasn’t sure what I had got myself into.

The film World War Z stars Brad Pitt, who in the midst of a zombie pandemic finds himself shuffled into the deck of the world’s rescue team, which also features a globally renowned expert in viruses et al as well as the standard motley crew of army companions. Their mission is to go deep behind the enemy lines, to find patient zero and investigate how the infection operates. The journey takes them across countries which overall does try to encompass excerpts from the novel in as dramatic a fashion as possible. The portrayal of Israel is a good example that readers of the book could find a good parallel in. After that though, the similarities dwindle out. Most of the latter part of the movie centres on a World Health Organisation facility, where a plan for a cure begins to unravel. The climax is tense and overall as a narrative the movie successfully breaks into the ranks of respectable zombie films. This review will tend to focus more on the book though, as that’s probably where the real credit should go.

The most observable difference seen in the first few pages of the book on comparison to the film is the existence of the slow-type zombie rather than the fast-moving monster that is rampant in Brad Pitt’s world. Other than that readers would be surprised to see the book actually comprises a series of interviews, each skipping to different parts of the world and effectively examining the fallout of the “war” for people of all manner of class, gender, economic background and professional status. Even I thought this wasn’t going to work, with the skill needed to write a convincing novel made up only of interviews very hard to come by. But to Brooks’ credit, he whisks you right into the story from the beginning. The interviewer only intervenes to a point, giving the book room to flow, and so the pace isn’t hurt at all as mostly those being questioned are left free to describe first-hand what occurred to them during the apocalypse. However, if this was the only feature alone that Brooks employed, I’d leave the book thinking it was a solid shot at trying to convince the reader this had actually happened. What’s scary more than impressive, is that the author goes much, much further.

What’s immediately evident is the writer sticks to a set time pattern, with the novel’s early interviews revolving around the breakout of the virus, progressing eventually through survivor stories and the resulting fight back by the humans remaining.

The first twenty pages are an eerie look at just how terrifying it would be to come upon what seem like gruesome murders or abstract infections, the tone set by those interviewed (which of course the author controls) that all authority were completely incompetent, bewildered or out to cover up the true nature of what was going on. The writer breathes intelligence in every interview as he comes up with clever ways to get the virus on the move, such as cross-continent organ transplants or smugglers helping people out of quarantine zones. This helps quash the disbelief we all would have of “how exactly does this take over the world?”

Some of the best work is evident in the Israel/Palestine story. Of course, pre-war, this has its own political and social upheavals, so the virus only adds to the pool of problems the Middle East faces, with religion and military powers now coming into play as well. This is told from both sides of the Gaza strip, and from those both in power and those on the ground.

Once the plague begins to go global, the interviews shift to where the blame lies. At first we get glimpses of government officials discussing cover-up operations and attempts to avoid panic, but this also expands to give us a look at more interesting and obscure topics such as failed vaccine attempts and the embers of human-zombie contact on American soil.

The Great Panic spans a large chunk of the novel, and importantly deals with how humans became the losing side; a factor left out by most zombie movies where viewers are landed into the situation already after the government/society has collapsed. The tone here darkens significantly, and for the first time we begin to see the psychological implications of an undead world. Survivor stories feature a deranged woman, the fall of the army and the Russian side of the conflict.

After that we see just how big the fallout is, with stories of cannibalism and humans gone insane, either imitating zombies to their own demise or forming wild groups in the urban jungles. The book then takes the survivor cases in two groups-those still living in America and those located on other continents. Some pieces even go so far as to deal with life on the international space station, or life for a Japanese computer kid who is so hooked he fails to notice his parents gone for several days.

WordPress doesn’t have enough blog space to go into detail on all of the fascinating stories the author explores. As a result, I’ll focus finally on the last portion of the book, where I think the author succeeds to give the novel a lasting legacy. Here, during the human fight-back, we are painted a portrait of every aspect of the front line, whether it’s underwater, in cities, in Parisian catacombs or across the American Great Plains. Comprehensive would be insulting as a description, such is the extent to which it falls short in showing just how far the author’s research has prevailed. The ending is bitter sweet in most respects, with a lot of the earlier interviewees revisited to examine the aftershock. Realistically, if you took out the world zombie here and there, it really feels like the novel could have been the aftermath of any natural disaster. It’s less of a novel about zombies thriving, and more of a novel about humans clinging on, whatever for, and even then, remaining uncertain.

I would certainly recommend this on any summer reading list, if only for its merits in writing alone. Outside of that, the research, detail and difference in style the author brings to the table are commendable and go far beyond whatever Pitt and his friends were ever likely to achieve.

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