You can see the problem straight from the name of the movie. “World War Z”.
The historical world wars, one and two, were big, epic things. To make a movie of one of them by gluing a camera to the ass of one man would be silly; it would be a Forrest Gump-like comedy, an unrealistic lark, with our protagonist showing up wherever things happen whether he wants it or not. If you then have a bigger cataclysm than either of these two wars, and title it in such sweeping fashion, there’s some expectation that you are going to do justice to the scale and complexity of the conflict.
Or, you know, just glue a camera to a guy’s ass and see what happens.
Max Brooks’s book, almost incidentally also called World War Z, gets this. It doesn’t have a protagonist; it has a narrator. The narrator is the least important figure in the story, though the frame story is his. What he did during the war isn’t important, because he did nothing important. His importance is in finding the people who have stories to tell, because no one single person can tell the whole. The broken people that our narrator interviews after the zombie war have their own stories, and together they make up a story of not just humans, but humanity. Instead of war stories, the story of a war: World War Z. That the individual stories are disjointed, separated from each other, just emphasizes the chaos and the terrible extent of the war.
In the movie, the chaos of the conflict is represented by gluing the camera to a pogo stick and turning the lights off. A daring audiovisual storytelling decision, that.
The movie has no narrator, but a protagonist — the few times the protagonist tries to narrate things, he’s capable of nothing more except generic platitudes that could work just as well for a diet as for a zombie apocalypse. See the last minutes of the movie.
Also, in the book the conflict is world-wide: a world war. Through the stories we see the lives of people, as they were and as they became, in Mississippi, China, Russia, South Africa, lots of other places which aren’t named AMERICA! and in which no conspicuous Americans cavort around, stealing the spotlight and the importance of the stories told.
In the movie, we see: New York, in AMERICA! An American base in Korea — we briefly see a native; just briefly, don’t worry. Jerusalem — don’t worry, our protagonist is American and, unlike in the book, we won’t say anything about the Palestinians, rah rah Israel! — and then Wales, which is almost like America, don’t you worry, o, you skittish viewer. You don’t have to struggle over feeling sympathy for people who don’t look like you. Drool into your popcorn and watch the untouchable protagonist running around.
Let’s just take one character from the movie: Tomas. The little kid from New Jersey. He is barricaded in with his family when the protagonist crashes in with his. Shortly after the protagonists leave, the zombies barge in. The whole family except for Tomas is killed, then resurrected; he’s chased up to the roof and to the protagonist’s rescue helicopter by his father, mother and sister who are now monsters that want to kill and eat him. For the resulting trauma and shock we get… a five-second clip of the protagonist telling Tomas to man up and look after his womanfolk. Because your father chasing you with fangs and claws and staring eyes, hey, who wants to see a boy dealing with that. In the book we would have gotten the equivalent of five minutes with Tomas; in the movie we get nothing, because the protagonist’s sickeningly ideal and lily-white family take up all the screentime. Because hey, they lost a stuffed animal or some such great trauma.
In the book, the zombies are slow. You can run away from them; the problem is, where do you run? They are like death and taxes: running is a temporary solution at best. The problem is that the whole world is collapsing, with all the attendant problems and human insanities; one of the main threads of the book is that once miracle cures and utopian refuges don’t appear, one has to stop running, take a shovel, and start bashing zombies in the head. Then, after a few years, those that remain can win a vigilant peace until Zed War Two.
Possibly this is too grim for the idiots who write movies. Or they couldn’t find a way for Brad Pitt to take up a shovel all over the world and hit the zombies with it for five years. (One could trace most of the failures of the movie to this: it has a protagonist, not a narrator. Then you insert a family, jettison some original pieces, insert protagonist heroics, jettison a few more pieces, insert running and screaming, do away with flashbacks, insert some concrete victory the protagonist can find, jettison — and in the end, nothing of the original is left.)
In the book, the zombies are slow; the book’s menace is not that the zombies jump you, but that they corner you. In the movie? The movie starts with the protagonist’s family having a saccharine breakfast in a peaceful world. By lunchtime they’re facing gunfire and rapists at the local mall. It’s not just the zombies that are quick; everything is quick almost to the point of comedy.
During the finale, our protagonist injects himself with a vial of random disease — because the stupid magic bullet here is that the zombies don’t eat the terminally sick. They taste funny or something. Then he waits fifteen minutes and, hooray, the zombies don’t touch him! I am not a biologist, but I am pretty sure diseases don’t work that way. Even if you inject yourself with smallpox, it’s not as if a giant placard of “SICK! AND INEDIBLE!” immediately appears over your head. Surely this should take days, weeks even.
But hey, it’s not like the book is some practicality-attendant thing with a perfectly deadpan serious in-world companion volume called the Zombie Survival Guide. Moving along!
In another development, our protagonist has a family. They’re saccharine non-persons; uninteresting blobs of female baggage. They take the space of a story, but theirs is a story where nothing interesting happens. Nothing would have been lost if they had been eaten during the first ten minutes; indeed it would have made the movie better. At least then our protagonist wouldn’t have left on a world-having mission with no way to contact the UN… but with a phone to contact his wife with.
This could have been framed as the wife’s job being to look after the phone, and alert the UN people when it rang; but I’m not sure if there was any such agreement. (Related: the book makes a big deal of making difficult, cruel, questionable decisions for survival. The movie has the UN people being callous dicks towards the unerring protagonist’s saintly family, for no good reason. Different strokes, I guess!)
Also, the UN apparently didn’t give him any papers or identification, as in Wales the locals didn’t know who he was; in the world of this movie it’s much better to hope you have a phone you can use to get in contact with someone who says he’s the vice something of the UN. You know, credentials! If he had encountered a passport check, why, he would just have handed the magic phone to the inspector. Which is how this UN does things; one wonders how the managed to commandeer a US aircraft carrier to be their home base.
Also: our protagonist, Gerry Lane, sleeps for three days in Wales. When he wakes up, the locals are insistent on knowing who the hell he is. In the three days they apparently did not: (a) find any papers on him, (b) try the exotic satellite phone he had, or (c) ask the woman he came in with. Because, hey, women, what do they know.
And the zombies: well, after one bites you, you have (for one strain) twelve seconds and then you are a zombie too. (For the Korean strain, ten minutes — for the Jerusalem strain, well, our protagonist assumes twelve seconds, but how does he know? What fun it would have been if he had been wrong, and five minutes later… chomp! Israeli lady teeth on you neck, Lane!) These zombies are not death or taxes; they’re more a tsunami of flesh. Which is showy; but has nothing to do with the book.
The book has a lot of interesting set pieces; the movie has none of those.
No Paul Redeker, no downed plane, no Japan, no China, no Tibet, Russia or India; the movie starts after the first stories and ends before the stories of the reclamation. I can’t recall any extended scene that was from the book. (The movie has Israel walled in, but unlike in the book, the wall doesn’t held. Probably too few Americans holding it.) The makers could just have changed the title and Gerry Lane’s name and Max Brooks couldn’t even have sued them for stealing his ideas.
(I hope Brooks got lots of money for the movie rights; he sure as heck didn’t get a faithful or even a particularly good movie. Hopefully the money buys time to write something big and tasty again, and not just such zombie marginalia as he’s done since the book.)
(Apparently J. Michael Straczynski, a god among men for the creation of Babylon 5, wrote the first iteration of the script. It took place after the war, like the book, and was apparently very good. What went wrong after that I don’t know, but it went wrong repeatedly and with great force to the forehead, and in the end this genius stroke of a movie crawled out.)
After the griping, the good parts of the movie. One, there was a really chilling line about North Korea and teeth. That’s pretty much it; otherwise this was a generic high-budget zombie runner-screamer-shooter with the name of an unrelated, unique and great book.