Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘J. Michael Straczynski

Pitt and Prejudice and Zombies

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Last week, the Internet was up in arms over the news that the upcoming movie adaptation of World War Z will depart radically from its source material, at least if a short synopsis released by the studio can be believed. While the novel by Max Brooks is a retrospective oral history of a zombie apocalypse, structured around interviews conducted by an essentially passive protagonist, director Marc Forster and star Brad Pitt (not to mention screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski) seem to have something quite different in mind, an action epic in which Pitt “traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.” And the book’s fans—as well as people who understand what “decimate” means—are understandably upset.

First, though, an important reminder: novels are almost never acquired by Hollywood with a faithful adaptation in mind. Rather, it’s a form of risk aversion. Studio executives don’t like developing original material because they have no one else to blame if the project flops. If a movie based on a bestselling novel or comic book fails to catch fire—as both Green Lantern and Cowboys vs. Aliens recently did—the studio can point the blame at the fans or the filmmakers, while defending the decision to greenlight the project in the first place. Without that safety net, the blame falls squarely on the executive who made the initial call. So the decision to make a movie out of World War Z probably has less to do with the merits of the material itself than the realities of studio politics.

It shouldn’t come as surprise, then, that a literal adaptation may not be in the cards. But it isn’t necessarily clear that a faithful version would be a good thing. With its unconventional structure, World War Z was always going to be a challenge to adapt, and even the most straightforward novel is usually too complex to be filmed without drastic condensation. The movies we think of as faithful to their sources, from Gone With the Wind to The Silence of the Lambs, are really impressive feats of sleight of hand: at most, they respect the source’s tone and structure, and know the difference between essential and nonessential material. And as I pointed out last week, in the case of a film like L.A. Confidential, even a radically free adaption can turn out to be the truest reflection of a book’s soul.

So what does this mean for World War Z? In its current form, it was probably always unworkable as a big summer movie, a fact that should have been obvious from day one. While it’s possible, then, that the studio never had any intention of adapting it faithfully, there’s also a more generous interpretation, which is that Pitt, Forster, and the rest are taking the novel for what it is: a mine of detail, atmosphere, and incident that can be channeled into a more conventional story. This isn’t a million miles removed from what happens when a famous work of nonfiction, like All the President’s Men, becomes the basis for a movie. Brooks wrote World War Z, after all, as a book that could be taken as an authoritative work of history. And if this is the kind of adaptation we get, it may simply be a measure of how well he succeeded.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2011 at 9:50 am

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