During a sunny day on April 25, the Calgary Expo played host to an hour long spotlight on Max Brooks, one of the special guests of the convention. Brooks is well known for his novel World War Z, a series of first-person retellings of a fictional zombie plague. Zombie fans came in expecting Brooks to answer fan questions and promote his upcoming books: Extinction Parade and Harlem Hellfighters. But first Brooks wanted to talk about what he called “the Brad Pitt-sized elephant in the room” that is the film adaptation of World War Z. What followed was a brief, yet hilarious, 10-minute jab at the movie adaptation of his book. It was a brilliantly executed one-man show equivalent to a monologue from Kids in the Hall.
This is probably the most unusual review I have ever written. I’ve reviewed a documentary theorizing the Shining being about the “fake” moon landing. I have reviewed a poetry book about Robots. A poetry book about Robots. But here, I’m reviewing a brief segment of a Max Brooks’ panel. Not his book. Not his life work. I’m not even reviewing the whole panel. Just the first 10 minutes of Max Brooks’ performance. But what a performance it was.
He begins with the publication of the book in 2005, which was met with critical acclaim and a cult following. Then came a bidding war between Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Take a guess who won? “And then six years later, a movie comes out with the exact same title as the book,” says Brooks. He takes swipes at every element of the film, from Director Mark Forster (“I’d to thank Max Brooks, who wrote this wonderful book that I didn’t read”) to the fast zombies (“It could have been called ‘There’s a Sale at Target”). His strongest blow points out how Brad Pitt’s character comes off as the fantasy of a perfect husband: “Not only does he have to save the world but he has to call his wife to check in.”
Judging by his delivery, he has inherited his father’s sense of humor. Nearly every sentence spoken by this guy is hilarious. There are the many names he calls the movie: “28 Days Later on crack” and “The greatest work of middle aged female pornography I’ve ever seen” and the sequel: The Battle for More Money.” But there is one moment of pure richness. After describing his intention for creating the book, he recalls watching a segment on Entertainment Tonight. “What Do I See? Zombies attack and only Brad Pitt can save us.” His wordless reaction is equal to that of Jack Benny.
Despite his insults, he never comes off as either mean or bitter. His lines are delivered with in good natured manner. As he tells the audience, he accepted this as a consequence for selling the rights to the film and didn’t feel it was his place to attack the film. He admits he thought he would be pulling his hair out but after seeing the film but he was happy; “They didn’t ruin my story, they ignored it.” He felt he was given the gift of “emotional distance.”
Plus, he is fortunate to have people close to him to offer support. As with many great writers, he has a supportive wife who knows him better than himself. She suggests talking to Frank Darabont, creator of the TV series the Walking Dead. Having been fired from the show during the second season, Darabont offers some wise words for Brooks: “No matter what happens after this movie, you have your book. You have your side of the story.” And finally, Brooks receives a letter of encouragement from a Horror legend used to having his work bastardized by Hollywood.
After finishing his routine, he talks about his current work, two new comic books called Extinction Parade and Harlem Hellfighters. From his conversation, they sound interesting. Extinction Parade imagines a zombie apocalypse from a vampire’s perspective. Brooks’ idea is since Vampires don’t have to work for their meal, they wouldn’t have the survival skills to take on such an outbreak. If you’re tired of zombies, Harlem Hellfighters is a complete change of pace. It is based on the true story of the first African American army and their fight in world war one. He tried sell it as a script but couldn’t get a buyer. Ironically, the film rights to the graphic novel were bought out by superstar Will Smith. Don’t you just love Hollywood’s ignorance?
During his panel, Max Brooks presents himself as the type of guy you’d want as a friend and a great role model for writers. He brings a lot of interesting and intelligent ideas to his work. He has a good natured, yet fun-loving, manner to him, even when taking verbal shots at Hollywood. There is humility to him that is refreshing in the ego-driven world of fame. Hopefully, more Canadian comic conventions will welcome him and he will come with his one man show of the film with the same name as his book.
For those interested in seeing this panel, check it out on this link:
World War Z centers on a UN journalist’s investigation into the aftermath of an international zombie pandemic. Through a series of interviews, the unnamed journalist attempts to figure out the beginnings of the pandemic, the way each nation reacted to it and how they were able to contain it. Each chapter is divided into a first person retelling his/her experience.
It’s an interesting risk for a narrative to have a zombie story to take place after the zombie outbreak instead of during it. Brooks makes it pay off. First of all, the characters are very well written and complex in their own way, ranging from doctors to politicians to reclusive. Second of all, his storytelling presents the pandemic so realistically you can imagine the nations would react that way in the real world. Most notably, you can imagine Israel blockading the outside world, leaving only Israelis and Palestinians inside.
As Brooks said in the panel, he didn’t want to do a typical zombie story. “I didn’t want it to be a small group of people because it’s been done. I didn’t want the alpha male hero who saves the world because I wasn’t interested in that stuff. I didn’t want the magic bullet because that’s not how we solve real crisis.” He sure succeeded.
World War Z stars Brad Pitt as a Gerry Lane, an average family man who one day finds himself and his family caught in the middle of a zombie pandemic. Then the UN comes calling asking him to help get to the source of the outbreak and maybe find a cure. In return, his family will be protected. So Lane travels the globe in hopes that somewhere out there, he can find out how this zombie plague came to be and maybe bring its end.
If you’ve read the book or the first footnote, it is obvious the film deviates from the book. Changes were inevitable considering books are a literary medium and movies are a visual one. I would have gone with more of a mockumentary style, but I digress. It would make sense of a conventional adaptation to have the narrator go through the events himself. But people felt the left out too many good parts of the book for them to enjoy it. Plus, the film feels like the same standard zombie film Brooks went out of his way to not make. You know, the whole world resting on the shoulders of one man type of plot
Where the film is strong is the portrayal its zombies. First of all, it goes for fast zombies, creating urgency. Second of all, the rabid transformation of a zombie is actually quite scary. Third is the choice to make the zombies’ behavior similar to lemmings, tumbling over themselves and smashing into windows in order to get at their prey. These elements are especially scary in the scene when they climb up a giant wall.