If you follow entertainment news at all you know that director Marc Forster and star Brad Pitt found Max Brooks’ 2006 zombie novel World War Z fiercely difficult to adapt. Multiple screenwriters — including Damon Lindelof and an uncredited Christopher McQuarrie — were brought in to tweak the script. Maybe it’s because Brooks’ novel is episodic, focusing on different vignettes about the Zombie War as a whole, like Studs Terkel’s World War II oral history The Good War, rather than traditional three-act plotting. Or Forster & Co. simply wanted to create a rip-roaring action thriller instead of the political commentary that Brooks’ had originally intended. Either way, a lot of the original novel got tweaked, or outright excised, in its translation to the big screen. Here are seven key differences between the book and the movie.
1. The Movie Drops the Book’s Framing Device — Brooks himself is the narrator of his own novel, having reimagined himself working for the United Nations to chronicle the decade-long Zombie War that has just wiped out most of humanity and against which the survivors have only just recently emerged victorious. Unlike the movie, the book presents a past-tense account of events that have already concluded, as Brooks interviews combatants of the war about their experiences, resulting in an episodic structure.
2. China Has “Patient Zero” in the Book…But Not the Movie — Perhaps fearing that the inclusion of the detail that the first person infected with the zombie virus was in China would upset Chinese censors and prevent World War Z’s distribution there, the movie suggests that “Patient Zero” was actually found in South Korea…or India. It’s a little bit unclear.
3. American Ingenuity Saves the Day in the Movie, While American Complacency Threatens Our Doom in the Novel — Brooks directs much of his most potent political commentary toward America in his novel, showing the U.S. government as overconfident, but unprepared, in its response to the zombie outbreak. Isolationist tendencies prevent the U.S. from responding to reports of the outbreak elsewhere, and even once the government does react, the fact that our forces are tied down in “brushfire wars” (i.e. Iraq, Afghanistan) means we don’t have many resources to fight the crisis. Some reviewers have noted that U.S. handling of the Zombie War recalls the unpreparedness of emergency management during Hurricane Katrina. But Brooks is also careful to show that the military’s tactics in the fight — using shock and awe campaigns against undead beings that “can’t be shocked and awed” — are outmoded.
4. However, America is Transformed by the War — The movie takes place over the course of a few weeks. The novel takes place over ten years. So while America may have started off ineptly in the fight, the whole of U.S. society is transformed during that decade to meet the crisis. Martial law and rationing of food are instituted. A “Re-Education Act” passes that requires training for adults to learn how to survive in a zombie-infested world, and public humiliation is re-instituted as a form of punishment for infractions against the law. Because of this, several secessionist zones pop up, including in the Black Hills.
5. The Nations that Are Winners and Losers Aren’t Who You’d Expect — The movie makes you think that the whole world is suffering equally from the plague, with the exception of Israel. Even Wales, which along with most of the United Kingdom in the book emerges unscathed, is overrun by zombies in the movie. Some outcomes in the novel aren’t unexpected: Pakistan and Iran obliterate each other with nuclear weapons following a refugee crisis. But Cuba, on the other hand, emerges as a major new power, having undergone a democratic revolution during the war. Havana even becomes the world’s leading financial capital. China also transforms into a democratic society, and an independent Tibet possesses the world’s most populous city in Lhasa. The zombies, however, completely exterminate the population of Iceland.
6. Really Weird Things Happen in North Korea — Actually, this is something that happens in both the book and movie, but with a few differences. In the film, the North Korean government orders that the teeth of all 23 million of its inhabitants be extracted so no one who becomes a zombie can bite and spread the infection. In the novel, the entire population disappears, presumably to hide in a network of underground bunkers that run through the whole country.
7. The Treatment of Prisoners Takes an Inhumane Hit — Another thing totally left out of the movie, convicts are basically exterminated by world governments in the novel by being dropped into infected areas and used to distract the zombies while the non-convict population escapes.
Funny that a movie with so many chomping zombies would ultimately be pretty toothless compared to its source material.