This time we look at the most recent of the screenwriting gurus, John Yorke, and then take a hard look at the transformations of World War Z. What happens when a novel without a hero goes through four of the scriptwriting machines?
INTO THE WOODS: HOW STORIES WORK AND WHY WE TELL THEM
known in the U.S. as
INTO THE WOODS: A FIVE ACT JOURNEY INTO STORY
If you only want to read a single screenwriting manual, to suck the blood out of all the others, this is the one. Vampirism is Into the Woods’ pitch, just as Save the Cat!’s was ‘The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need’.
Into the Woods is a synoptic work – a brilliant gathering of what’s gone before. With recapitulations, and diagrams, the reader is given the marrow of Syd Field, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder, Robert McKee and many others.
There’s a table on page 256, into which Yorke crams together all the three-, five- and eight-act structures he can find. It is an amazingly useful and powerfully reductive piece of work – as is the whole book.
Because he is the most recent of the gurus, Yorke is able to look back in anger but also with the desire to plunder. He critiques Vogler and Campbell:
When I started to explore structural theory more seriously, I went back to it again. It is flawed and simplistic… Part of the reason I was so quick to dismiss it was because, like [Gustav] Freytag, it suggested the biggest point of drama, the supreme ordeal, was in the middle of the film – implying a backward journey in which the forces of antagonism didn’t build. Equally, I couldn’t understand how there could be two different screenwriting paradigms. Surely there only be one or none at all?
(The other paradigm is the five-act structure – which Yorke has traced, in an earlier chapter, through the Latin playwright Terence, Shakespeare and the German novelist Gustav Freytag.)
Two simple actions were, however, able to unlock the conundrum. The first was to attempt to fit both paradigms together – to give Vogler’s work an act structure… The second was to… feed in a character flaw.
This is Yorke’s main idea about heroes:
..the elixir, the elusive treasure that the hero or homeland needs, is exactly the same element the protagonist needs to overcome their flaw.
Yorke’s heroes are more divided than Snyder’s. They always need to learn something about themselves.
Fully realized characters have a façade. It’s constructed of elements the character believes to be beneficial but, as we discover, will actually destroy them… Conversely, the traits a character may believe to be a weakness, if indeed they are conscious of them, become the elements that offer redemption.
Yorke’s world-view is not religious, it’s scientific – pop science. He’s big on chaos theory and fractals. Which means he sees five act structures in every scene and every exchange. And his psychology is pop psych. We’re all on a journey, we’re all incomplete, we’re all perpetually learning and improving. Clearly, he is more comfortable with Freud than Jung. And he’s quite happy to give Vogler’s further out speculations on storytelling a spanking.
His work is frustrating however, partly because Vogler himself makes no attempt to dig deeper than noting its resemblance to the ‘monomyth’; partly because his own elucidations are often confused and partly because there’s no real attempt (apart from some quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo) to understand why.
Not that Into the Woods doesn’t make its own claims, some just as grandiose as Vogler, or Campbell. The subtitle of the book is ‘How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them’. In answering to the why, Yorke can also be just as patronising as the next guru.
For all its flaws existentialism pinpointed an essential truth: in a godless universe, the abject horror of meaningless existence is too much for any individual to bear.
Oh those dumb existentialists! Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger. How little they knew compared to us, the writers of EastEnders.
Once upon a time God was the story we told to make sense of our terror in the light of existence. Storytelling has that same fundamentally religious function – it fuses the disparate, gives us shape, and in doing so instils in us quiet.
Again, we see the screenwriter put into the place of God. It’s another apotheosis.
John Yorke mini-biog
John Yorke is the only non-American among the screenwriting gurus. He was born in Stepney, London, in 1962. He went to Newcastle University, and joined the BBC in 1986. Here, he worked as a studio manager and then a producer on BBC Radio 5. After he moved to television, in 1994, he was soon working on the BBC’s top soap opera, EastEnders. He rose to the position of executive producer and guided the programme during one of its most successful periods. In 2003, he became Head of Drama at Channel 4 – commissioning Shameless, Sex Traffic and Omagh. He returned to the BBC in 2005, as Controller of BBC Drama Series. He worked again on EastEnders, but also Casualty, Holby City and Doctors. He was Commissioning Editor/Executive Producer on Life on Mars, Robin Hood and Bodies. These are among the most successful TV shows in the UK.
Where Field quotes a McDonald’s Corporation poster at the end of Screenplay, Yorke also saves his ideological unveiling to the end:
Stories that do last, then, are the ultimate result of the free market… A free market keeps both things we know to be true, and things we want to believe, alive.
He couldn’t hold it in any longer. He had to come right out and say it. Competition is king, greed is good – for stories, for protagonists in stories.
(What do we do if the antagonist, the baddie, turns out to be us ourselves? People aren’t to be blamed for multiplying, for accepting better healthcare. But they are to be blamed for squandering their resources, and oppressing those who make the stuff they use.)
At one point, in the chapter on why we tell stories, Yorke gives what might be seen as an ecological explanation:
If it is indeed possible for stories to carry in their DNA a blueprint for survival then it’s possible to see the roadmap of change as a template for that wider purpose. Societies survive by adaptation, rejecting orthodoxy and embracing change – in exactly the same pattern reflected by the archetype. Why shouldn’t storytelling be a codification of this process, one in which, through empathy, individuals are invited to take part?
But this reads more like Social Darwinism – quite literally Social Darwinism – than a vision of a sustainable transitional economy.
If our will to following the same selfish narrative patterns is so essentially part of us, we are fucked. The fuel needed in order to maintain this dynamism is beyond the resources of our single planet.
If the hero needs to pursue their goals by all means necessary, that means continuing to chuck the cigarette butt out the car window (to look cool) or cutting down the rainforest (to feed your kids).
WORLD WAR Z: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE ZOMBIE WAR
There have been successful attempts to write novels of successful collective endeavour – and they haven’t necessarily been published by small anarchist presses.
World War Z (published in the U.S. by Crown, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, in 2006) is a novel without a Hero. It is written in the form of a large number of testimonies. In fact, it’s written in the form Jean Stein and George Plimpton invented for their book American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy (1970). That is, it’s a narrative oral history; a number of globally scattered interviews that cover the outbreak, spread, devastation and defeat of a zombie apocalypse. Scientists perform important individual roles, or make breakthroughs in understanding, but it is science itself that saves the world. As well as many acts of individual bravery and self-sacrifice. The book is exciting. The body count is very high – into the billions. To keep the reader interested, with no-one to root for except humanity itself, is a great formal achievement.
Max Brooks Mini-Biog
Max Brooks was born in New York, New York, in 1972. He’s the son of the Hollywood actress Anne Bancroft (Mrs Robinson in The Graduate) and the writer, director, comic legend Mel Brooks (The Producers, Robin Hood: Men in Tights). In interview Brooks has described how he grew up terrified by death threats to his mother (after she kissed the black actor Sydney Poitier on-camera during the 1964 Academy Awards – because he’d just won Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field), and her vivid descriptions of how he might be abducted by strange men. He was also affected by a teenage viewing of an Italian zombie movie (almost certainly Cannibal Holocaust) incorporating footage of real cannibalism. These formative experiences came out when he began writing The Zombie Survival Guide (2003). He’s joked that he had “two god-given talents at that point: OCD and unemployment.” Brooks is a very funny guy.
I’ve chosen to write about World War Z for several reasons. First, it’s a story about saving the world from a pandemic. Second, it is a perfect example of what happens when you impose Heroism upon an anti-Heroic narrative.
To get World War Z the movie, take World War Z the book and process it through four of the generations of screenwriting manual: Screenplay, The Writer’s Journey, Story and Save the Cat!
In other words, by looking closely at World War Z we can see the development of Hollywood storytelling in miniature and sped up. A good book is turned into what, culturally, we now believe is a good story – and, in doing so, diversity is forced to become monomyth.
Only a Hero can save us now.
WORLD WAR Z
World War Z was optioned by Paramount Pictures for Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt’s company, because Brad liked the book so much. When a novel is acquired for Hollywood, it ceases to be a moving story of humans struggling against overwhelming odds, it becomes ‘a property’ (as in hot). Work needs to begin, and fast. However, in the time between acquisition and release, World War Z went through “one of the more famously troubled development periods in recent years, going from years in development hell to a production that culminated with the film’s original third act being completely re-written and re-shot”.
The job of writing the screenplay was initially given to J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5, and the Clint Eastwood movie Changeling). His first and second drafts are still downloadable – although that may not be the case for long.
Straczynski’s script was taken as a screen story (he got a credit for this) and then completely rewritten by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, State of Play), and then – after principal photography was completed and a rough cut of the film was viewable – added to by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, Buffy, Angel, Alias, Lost, The Cabin in the Woods) after a hard read Damon Lindelhof (Cowboys and Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek into Darkness). Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) also did some uncredited rewriting, very late on. The director throughout was Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher).
With some detective work, you can put together the story of how World War Z went from book to movie. And the first two versions of the script do exactly that: turn a series of interviews into a detective story. In Save the Cat terms, it’s a ‘Whydunit’:
Like Citizen Kane, a classic Whydunit, the story is about seeking the innermost chamber of the human heart and discovering something unexpected, something dark and often unattractive, and the answer to the question: Why?
In a 2013 interview with ScreenSlam, J. Michael Straczynski explained (with a little exaggeration) exactly what he did in his first draft:
In the original book, there is no narrator, there is no main character – there’s a series of interviews conducted by a faceless person with government leaders, ordinary people, military folks. And I thought, “Okay, the most logical approach to the story is to create that character who did those interviews, and give us a point of view within the United Nations, which makes sense [to allow him], to be able to go around the world to investigate this. And give him a family, and give him – you know – kids. And let us take this huge event, because people have a hard time understanding huge big worldwide planetary events – but a family in jeopardy, they can understand. You take this big story, and you make it small, and see it writ small, on one small family. Because you can identify with that.”
If you do a little digging in the novel, there is a narrator, and the nature of his after-the-fact investigation into “The Zombie War” is clear. That’s all already there in the Introduction. But it’s true that he’s faceless and nameless.
Everything else Straczynski says is very accurate, but also very telling. He’s a Syd Field school screenwriter. He’s created a “main character”, not a Hero. At points, the underplaying is almost comic. When we meet the Brad Pitt character (Gerry Lane) on page 5 of the script, he is described as ‘aloof, distant, bureaucratic’. All well within Pitt’s range as an actor, but not within his usual archetype, which would be ‘cool, self-assured, maverick’.
What is Gerry Lane’s quest? It’s laid out for him by Robert McEnroe, senior to him within the UN. What they want from Gerry is simply to file a report.
Well, more of a systems analysis, really. Where the system worked, where it didn’t, how and in what ways the various organizational infrastructures failed to respond –
(This speech reminds me of Harrison Ford’s response to some of George Lucas’s less elegant dialogue in Star Wars: “George! You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it! Move your mouth when you’re typing!”)
By the end of his journey, Gerry has become Heroic – filing his report despite death threats from the military – but to begin with, when he receives the Call to Action, he is (as far as we can see) a very ordinary guy.
The comparison to Citizen Kane is very apt. That film, too, unfolds (like the book of World War Z) as a series of interviews. In Straczynski’s Second Draft, I counted thirteen of them. This is a lot fewer than the roughly forty-five of the novel, but it’s still inert as a dramatic form. I think this is because what Straczynski wanted to write was a downbeat 1970s conspiracy theory movie – a kind of All the President’s Zombies. Haunting the background of his world-view is the Vietnam War, and the lessons the United States should have learned about cutting your losses and having an exit strategy.
One thing that did come through, from Straczynski’s Second Draft to the finished movie, was an opening scene in which a major American city goes all to shit, because of zombies. Here there’s Heroism, but it’s not initially Gerry’s. As the American forces get their arses chomped, we’re told that each shot should be “designed to look and feel Heroic, emphasizing the bravery and skill of the soldiers in battle”.
The basic form of the Second Draft is to globe-hop from interview to interview, having each start with pure exposition (“Let me tell you how it was…”) that then dissolves to a flashback.
This is in no way the Hero’s Journey. As a star vehicle, what are its obvious flaws?
Brad Pitt is a johnny-come-lately. Whatever personal bravery he shows in researching and delivering his report, it’s still just a stack of paper with some words on it. And, worst of all, he can’t save the world. The most he can do, in traumatic flashback, is save his family – whatever the cost. Spoiler in the footnote.
To my eyes, Straczynski’s two scripts are an intelligent, sometimes brilliant but ultimately flawed attempt to adapt Max Brooks’ novel. They have some great scenes along with some horribly clunky exposition.
In the First Draft, the global history of the Zombie War takes precedence. Gerry uncovers a tale of political corruption, military ineptitude and human (particularly American) venality. Each country copes with the zombie threat differently: China by ruthlessly covering it up, then heartlessly obliterating it with a nuclear bomb; Israel by wisely anticipating it and building a wall; America by blithely ignoring it, marketizing it and ultimately by importing a ready-made solution. The moral is given to U.S. General Casey, who had to watch his troops destroyed by zombies at the Battle of Yonkers. He says to Gerry:
I know you’re never going to use this in your report, but you want to know what I think happened? What I think really happened?
I think god took a little time off… Then one day, he decided to check in on us… I think he looked down at the world of infinite possibilities he’d created and saw that we’d burned down the garden of Eden and turned every inch of arable land into strip malls. I think he saw his creations had become a people who would sell each other out for ten dollars and a better parking spot. He saw bomb blasts and body counts, anthrax in the mail, wars for profit, billion dollar CEO golden parachutes and everybody out for himself, screw the other guy. He saw us feeding on each other. And He said, “Let me show you what that really looks like. Let me show you what that looks like… to me.” And he did.
By the Second Draft, there’s clearly been a demand for more action sequences. This time we open with what was the doomed Battle of Yonkers, now Philly. Gerry is on-site to witness this, and escape with his family. The script’s structure is the same – we follow three lines: Gerry’s present-day detective work, the global story of the Zombie War told to Gerry in flashbacks, and Gerry and his family’s own survival story. This time, General Casey has a different moral, less parable, more pop psych:
The problem was magical thinking. The politicians, the brass, they saw what was coming and refused to believe it. We told them their strategies wouldn’t work and they refused to accept it. The facts don’t matter. Global warming. Katrina. AIDs. Evolution. You’ve got people deciding something’s not a threat because they don’t believe in it, because it’s inconvenient, because it’s against policy. That’s magical thinking. And when you enter the realm of magical thinking, anything can happen.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the prescience of this.
Straczynski’s scripts take World War Z as far as Syd Field’s 1979-vintage screenplay wisdom can take it. When Michael Carnahan came on board, he was from a younger generation – not hung up on Vietnam, Watergate or slow 1970s Whydunits. What he brought most of all was The Writer’s Journey.
Without doubt one of the first things Carnahan decided was that we didn’t need a mere “main character”, we needed a Hero – and that Hero must definitely be a non-bureaucratic version of Brad Pitt. He understood, as Straczynski didn’t, why World War Z had been optioned: as a star vehicle for Brad. If he didn’t put a Hero at the centre of the action, the script wouldn’t get made and it wouldn’t stand much of a chance of being a success.
And so, in Save the Cat! terms, Carnahan changed the genre of the movie from Whydunit to Dude with a Problem –
..this genre has two very simple working parts: a dude, meaning an average guy or gal just like ourselves. And a problem: something that this average guy must dig deep inside himself to conquer.
By the time he finished, Carnahan roughly put in place what is now the bulk of the first two acts of the film – up until Gerry gets on the last flight out of Israel. He kept Straczynski’s invented family at the centre of the story, not even changing the kids’ names. He also kept the character of Jurgen Warmbrunn, the Israeli Mossad agent, who is the one man in ten who must disagree with the consensus.
Apart from this, apart from completely retooling the story, Carnahan’s main work was in supersizing the unheroic Gerry of Straczynski’s scripts.
Brad Pitt is no longer a johnny-come-lately. He is on the spot, close to the epicentre, when the zombies first overrun an American City (Philadelphia). After an opening sequence in which he demonstrates quick thinking and great defensive driving to rescue his family, he is brought on board the USS Harry Truman by the military and then volunteers to go with Dr. Fassbach to investigate the outbreak of the zombie plague – not retrospectively, after the battle is lost, but right at the crucial point when the situation has become life or undeath. In other words, this much more macho version of Gerry has a shot at saving the world. The personal bravery he shows in researching this won’t just end in a stack of paper with some words on it – it will result in discovering a way to preserve his tribe, which is the whole human race.
Gerry has been Voglerized and his genre has been Snydered.
But it took another three writers, Damon Lindelof, Drew Goddard and Christopher McQuarrie, to bring the movie home. After initial screenings, the producers, or perhaps Brad himself, clearly didn’t go for the overblown third act. How this originally ran was detailed by the website denofgeek:
In that version, Pitt’s character, Gerry, spends a great deal of time in Moscow, eventually becoming a ruthless zombie killing expert. It’s there that he discovers that the zombies are vulnerable to the cold, but when he finally gets to relay this message back to his wife, it turns out that she’s effectively had to trade herself for the safety of their children. She’s now with Matthew Fox’s soldier, who originally had rescued them at the start of the film… Gerry then starts a huge journey back across the world to try to save his wife – and that’s where the original version of the film was going to end.
Seven weeks of reshoots in Budapest were scheduled, after Damon Lindelof did a hard read on the script and found it lacking, although it was left to Drew Goddard to do the actual writing. Lindelof understood that the third act was basically a battle sequence that, by the law of escalation, could only justify its place by being bigger, busier and louder than the previous battle sequence. However, it wasn’t dramatically necessary. He had received and understood Robert McKee’s key message:
If I could send a telegram to the film producers of the world, it would be these three words: “Meaning Produces Emotion”. Not money; not sex; not special effects; not movie stars; not lush photography.
He also heeded McKee’s main structural advice:
A revered Hollywood axiom warns: “Movies are about their last twenty minutes.” In other words, for a film to have a chance in the world, the last act and its climax must be the most satisfying experience of all. For no matter what the first ninety minutes have achieved, if the final movement fails, the film will die over its opening weekend.
The director Marc Forster later gave his analysis:
..after Jerusalem, you are so exhausted that to have added another big battle would have been repetitive, and it would have left you feeling exhausted.
And so, strictly according to the Book of McKee, what the script needed was a meaningful Crisis and then a Climax.
In Lindelof and Goddard’s World War Z, the Crisis comes when the possible cure (or, as Gerry puts it, “camouflage”) is located in Vault 139, a refrigeration room located in B-Wing, the half of the World Health Organisation research facility overrun by zombies. (Gerry and a brave female Israeli soldier, Segen, have ended up here after his plane crashes in rural Wales.) To reach Vault 139, Gerry and his allies will have to go through the zombies, all 80 of them. Goddamit:
The Crisis Decision must be a deliberately static moment.
We freeze this moment because the rhythm of the last movement depends on it. An emotional momentum has built to this point, but the Crisis dams its flow. As the protagonist goes through this decision, the audience leans in, wondering: “What’s he going to do? What’s he going to do?” Tension builds and builds, then as the protagonist makes a choice of action, that compressed energy explodes into the Climax.
At the Crisis, what Gerry decides is – he’s prepared to Heroically risk his own life going through the zombie maze to reach the cure – because that’s the only way to Save the World, and so save his family.
Cue a suspense sequence very different to the rest of the movie in mood, style and just about everything else.
What’s still needed is a McKee-type Climax:
The Climax of the last act is your great imaginative leap. Without it, you have no story. Until you have it, your characters wait like suffering patients praying for a cure.
Exactly, and not accidentally.
In Aristotle’s words, an ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected”. Inevitable in the sense that as the Inciting Incident occurs, everything and anything seems possible, but at Climax, as the audience looks back through the telling, it should seem that the path the telling took was the only path. Given the characters and their world as we’ve come to understand it, the Climax was inevitable and satisfying. But at the same time it must be unexpected, happening in a way the audience could not have anticipated.
Repeatedly, throughout the movie, we have seen isolated characters ignored by the onrush of zombies. While everyone else is mauled, these weaklings – the chronic alcoholic, the soldier with something seriously wrong with his leg, the Arab boy with leukemia, the feeble old Jewish man – are spared. The fact they are already condemned to death means that the undead don’t see them as prey – they don’t perceive them at all.
This is the classic McKee reversal of values. As Gerry puts it, remembering his mentor, Dr. Fassbach:
I believe these things have a weakness, and that weakness is weakness – our weakness.
Our weakness becomes our strength.
In order to stage this final sequence, Lindelof reached not for McKee but for Snyder. The movie switches genre again, from Dude with a Problem to Monster in the House.
The director Marc Forster is explicit about this:
..the moment I’d heard the studio was willing to move forward with a more quiet haunted house ending which we pitched them, I was so relieved and happy.
WORLD WAR Z as THE HERO’S JOURNEY according to VOGLER
WORLD WAR Z
|Gerry making pancakes for wife Karin and daughters Rachel and Constance; and then playing twenty questions in their car.||00:03:28-00:05:41|
|The Call to Adventure||U.N. Under-Secretary Thierry Umutoni calls Gerry to tell him ‘This is not for old time’s sake – I need you.’ (To save the world.)||00:13:40|
|Refusal of the Call||Naval Commander Mullenaro tells Gerry ‘We’ll send you in with the team. Help Dr. Fassbach find whatever it is he needs.’ Gerry says, ‘No. Captain, I’m not your guy… I can’t help you. I can’t leave my family.’ Mullenaro says, ‘You want to help your family, you figure out how we stop this.’||00:32:08
|Meeting with the Mentor
|On the flight to Korea Dr. Fassbach tells Gerry. ‘Now the hard part… is seeing the crumbs for the clues they are. Sometimes the thing you thought was the most brutal aspect of the virus, turns out to be the chink in its armour.’||00:36:55|
|The Crossing of the First Threshold||Gerry and Dr. Fassbach get off the military air transporter in Korea.||00:39:41|
|Tests, Allies, Enemies
|Gerry’s travels to South Korea, China, Israel, and eventually Wales.||00:40:08-01:35:14|
|Approach to the Inmost Cave
|Gerry, along with two allies (Israeli soldier Segan and a W.H.O. Doctor) enters the half of the research facility overrun by somnolent zombies.||01:35:14|
|Trapped inside a glass-windowed refrigeration room, with a zombie just outside, Gerry injects himself with a potentially fatal virus to test his theory (hinted at by the mentor Dr. Fassbach) that zombies don’t attack those who are already dying. Then he waits to see what effect the virus has on him, and on the zombie’s reaction to him.||01:48:10|
|Reward (Seizing the Sword)
|Gerry presses the button to open the door of the refrigeration room containing the virus samples, and the zombie lurking outside doesn’t rush in to attack him and seemingly can’t see him. The W.H.O. Doctors watching on security video know the meaning of this: Gerry has discovered an invisibility potion. The world is saved.||01:50:06|
|The Road Back
|Gerry walks in triumph back to safety, through dozens of onrushing zombies – after stopping for a cold drink.||01:50:48
|Gerry is injected with an antidote to the virus he risked putting in his system, in order to save the world.||01:52:08|
|Return with the Elixir
|In voiceover, over shots of him being reunited with Karin and his daughters, Gerry speaks of the chance his discovery has given to the world. And intercut news reports tell us that “The World Health Organisation has created a vaccine that works as a kind of camouflage, making people who receive it invisible to the infected.”||01:53:45|
All the rewrites worked – at least in terms of box-office.
As a novel, World War Z had been a success. It sold over a million copies. But it didn’t make anything like as much money as the film. For the movie, the budget was $190,000,000. The Cumulative Worldwide Gross was $540,007,876 (as of 15 Oct 2013). At the time, what was trailed as Brad Pitt’s folly turned into the biggest non-sequel movie since Avatar. A follow-up was planned, and put into pre-production, but seems to have finally failed. The franchise is dead, but there’s no reason it can’t rise again as undead.
We’ve now seen what happens when the wisdom of the screenwriting gurus (what makes a good story) is applied to the basic, resistant material of World War Z.
The conclusion seems obvious.
What the book does, the film undoes. What the book says, the movie unsays. In fact, the movie has an opposite meaning to the book. ‘We’re saving our own lives,’ says the book. ‘A Hero – I’m holding out for a Hero,’ says the film.
Not only that, the Hero of the film is male, white, Western, heterosexual, married, able-bodied, affluent, liberal, sensitive, good teeth and great hair. He could take more care of his skin, but meh.
By complete contrast, the many characters in the polyvocal book are spread over almost the entire world. Here are just five of their names and locations: Jurgen Warmbrunn, Tel Aviv, Israel; Hyungchol Choi, The Demilitarized Zone: South Korea; T. Sean Collins, Bridgetown, Barbados; Ajay Shah, Alang, India; Nury Televaldi, Lhasa, Tibet.
The novel is about a scattered cast of diverse people pursuing roughly the same goal – finding a way to preserve human life on planet earth.
The film is about a lone Hero pursuing his own goal – finding a way to save his nuclear family.
For mainstream genre fiction, World War Z is well-written, radical and successful. It’s pretty close to a masterpiece. For mainstream Hollywood action movie, World War Z is fairly standard issue. It goes big on horror tropes but lacks any sense of humour. It isn’t The Bourne Identity; it isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road.
WORLD WAR Z BOOK AND MOVIE DIFFERENCES
|Slow zombies who can’t run or climb||
Fast zombies who can sprint and climb
|Several minutes infection time||
8-12 second infection time
Narration is retrospective, after the battle is won
|Narration (voiceover) is only retrospective at the end|
The narrator doesn’t play any part in the action
|The narrator is central to almost all the action|
|No Hero, in fact and only a nameless and faceless central character – therefore the fightback against the pandemic is a communal, global effort||Brad Pitt, a white, male, cisnormal, physically aggressive, weapon-employing, character-arcing Hero
A story of global survival, leaving a completely ravaged world
|A tale of family survival, completely intact, in fact augmented, leaving a severely damaged world|
|Goes to around forty-five places||
Goes to six places: NYC, boat, Korea, Israel, Wales, Nova Scotia
|Deradicalisation||Societal corruption is anatomized, i.e., the armed forces are corrupt and/or incompetent; capitalists profiteer from the outbreak||
The authorities and military (especially the navy) are brave and brilliantly efficient and entirely uncorrupt; there’s no sense of a business world, and how it reacts
|Meaning||The book is ‘about’ the difference in approach to a similar problem taken by various countries and cultures, these being occasionally stereotypical (as seen from an American point of view)||Like most blockbusters, the movie is ultimately ‘about’ reconstituting (or constituting anew) the nuclear family – mom, dad, plus kid or kids.|
|A tale of human venality||A tale of human courage|
I doubt Max Brooks has ever been able to express his true feelings about what was done to his story. I’ve only had one property optioned by Hollywood (the novel Corpsing), but my contract included several clauses that essentially committed me to never ever dissing anything to do with the movie, however trash it turned out to be. On pain of losing all revenue perpetually.
Bizarrely, I also promised not to smoke on the premises of the film company.
According to Wikipedia, ‘In a 2012 interview, [Max] Brooks stated the film now had nothing in common with the novel other than the title.’ The video is unavailable.
Brooks is not entirely correct. The character of Jurgen Warmbrunn, the Mossad agent who masterminds the defence of Israel, makes it through from book to movie – and is there in every version of the script I’ve read. This suggests to me that there was something in what he said that the producers, and perhaps Brad Pitt himself, believed was key to the movie. This is doubly true because whilst almost all the rest of the dialogue in the movie is different, a few lines of Warmbrunn’s dialogue make it all the way through – although the movie version is more a paraphrase:
In October of 1973, when the Arab sneak attack almost drove us into the Mediterranean, we had all the intelligence in front of us, all the warning signs, and we had simply “dropped the ball”… Well, after almost allowing the Arabs to finish what Hitler started, we realized that not only was that mirror image necessary, but it must forever be our national policy. From 1973 onward, if nine intelligence analysts came to the same conclusion, it was the duty of the tenth to agree. No matter how unlikely or far-fetched a possibility might be, one must always dig deeper.
In the ’30s, Jews refused to believe
they could be sent
to concentration camps.
In ’72, we refused to fathom
we’d be massacred in the Olympics.
In the month before October 1973,
we saw Arab troop movements,
and we unanimously agreed
they didn’t pose a threat.
Well, a month later, the Arab attack
almost drove us into the sea.
So we decided to make a change.
Jurgen Warbrunn: The Tenth Man.
If nine of us
look at the same information
and arrive at the exact same conclusion,
it’s the duty of the tenth man
No matter how improbable it may seem,
the tenth man has to start digging
on the assumption
that the other nine are wrong.
This, put plainly, is an argument against groupthink. It says that, in order to survive, humans must force themselves to disagree even when unanimity has already been achieved.
Within the world of screenwriting, the outlier is always going to be right. Imagine trying to write a movie in which your Hero disagreed with nine ordinary men, and was proven to be completely wrong? How would that be anything like a good story? Reverse the situation and you have Twelve Angry Men or To Kill a Mockingbird or Erin Brockovich.
As I said in the beginning, one of the consequences of The Hero’s Journey is that the community is always portrayed as incapable of saving itself. Groups are de facto weak, fractured, dithering and doomed. What they need is leadership. What they require is a Hero to save them.
Within the movie of World War Z, we see this anti-communal ideology dramatized a number of times. The first group shown trying to decide on the right action is on board the USS Harry Truman. It’s a bunch of scientists arguing about the cause of the outbreak. Only when the brilliant virologist Dr. Fassbach stands up and takes over (by invoking Spanish flu) does the discussion get anywhere. Fassbach is their tenth man. But ffs, as soon as he finishes speaking, they go back to their confusion. They can’t even agree to call them zombies – although everyone in the theater is going ‘Duh, it’s a *zombie* movie, guys.’
We are invited to contrast this total inability to act together, efficiently and satisfyingly, with the beat that immediately follows – when Naval Commander Mullenaro comes on deck. Everyone in the command centre snaps to attention in a beautifully choreographed wave. A moment before, they’d been attending to scattered and frantic tasks; before the ‘At ease’, there’s a short period of suspension – during it, nothing is achieved but the fact that this ‘group’ has shown it can unify at the moment authority presents itself is of great significance. As the Commander then says:
Take a look around here, Mr Lane. Each and every one of these people are [sic] here because they serve a purpose. There’s no room here for non-essential personnel.
Are there any moments at all in the film when a group collectively self-organises in a successful way? Yes, but it’s shown to be disastrous.
In Israel, by the Salvation Gate, those Arabs and Jews recently arrived in the wall-protected safe space of Jerusalem celebrate by singing together. A Muslim girl takes the microphone and solos through a feedback-y loudspeaker system. It’s a joyous moment of cross-religious harmony – of genuine human community. And, of course, within the values of the movie, it’s transcendentally stupid (as Heroic Gerry is first to realise) because loud noise attracts zombies. Outside the towering walls, in another moment of successful collective self-organisation, the zombies start to form ‘Zombie Pyramids’, clambering over one another in order to swarm upwards towards their prey.
Groups, by being leaderless, do dumb shit and bring about their own doom; Jerusalem falls.
Throughout the film, Gerry the Hero is seen as being almost unfailingly in the right. There’s only one moment where he’s forced to backtrack, morally.
Towards the beginning of the third act, after he’s arrived at the research facility in Wales, Gerry is in tense conversation with a group of characters all known only as ‘W.H.O. Doctor’. (That one of the W.H.O Doctors (Peter Capaldi) was announced as the new ‘Doctor Who’ six weeks after the release of the movie is, I guess, an unintentional but delightful irony.)
It has become clear that Gerry’s family have been taken off the safety of the naval ship and put in a refugee camp.
Trying to be sympathetic, the W.H.O. Doctor (this one played by Pierfrancesco Favino) says, ‘I understand how you feel.’
There’s a little sparring, back and forth, and then Gerry asks, ‘Do you have a family?’
‘No,’ says the W.H.O. Doctor.
Gerry tersely says, ‘No? Then you couldn’t possibly understand, could you?’
Calmly, the W.H.O. Doctor comes back with, ‘I lost my son and wife in Rome. Rather, I lost my son to – something that had once been my wife. Oh, we have all lost someone, Mr Lane. In your case there is hope, at least.’
Gerry’s solitary quest to save his family is first completely undermined, as selfish, (‘we have all lost’) and then completely reinstated, as worthy (‘there is hope’).
Gerry looks down, looks weary. He acknowledges he was wrong. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says.
It is only by an effort of imagination – imagining Gerry off-screen, before the first moments we see of him, that we can connect him to the human community, and make him seem anything other than independent of it.
Gerry is tied to his family – the woman he has married and the children he has had with her. However, he is completely disconnected from his or her parents and grandparents. The viewer can only assume, because of his apparent lack of concern, that they are either already dead, or they live in urban conurbations that Gerry knows will rapidly fall to the zombies – and so are as good as dead.
In order to exist as an independent Hero, Lane needs to be seen as without any kind of origin or support system – without anything that would hint at his dependency. It seems bizarre to have to state that Lane may have become self-reliant, but that he only exists as a result of multiple interdependences with multiple other, non-Heroic people.
Even if he never met the father who helped conceive him, Gerry had a mother, who carried him for nine months – deciding not to have an abortion, and taking enough care of herself to complete a successful pregnancy. And even if Gerry was taken into care a day or two after being born, the jobs of nurturing that are associated with a mother (breast- and bottlefeeding, nappy changing, bathing, comforting) were done to a minimum by nurses or carers. Someone taught Gerry to talk, to write, to do mathematics; later on, someone taught him cookery, basic field medicine, how to drive and how to fly a plane. As he was growing up, Gerry lived in buildings that others had built, walked on sidewalks others put down, he drove on tarmac others laid. These sidewalks and highways were paid for by taxes, taken from all those who contributed to the public purse. Every mouthful of food that kept Gerry alive was planted, grown, harvested or raised, and slaughtered or synthesized and packaged by others.
In other words, there is no such thing as a lone Hero. The boy raised by wolves depended on the wolves. Without our complex interdependence, we would all be dead. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this unavoidably obvious.
The same goes for ideas. A man’s very idea of lone Heroism, unbeholden to weaker others, is one he has learned from other men. The ideology of rugged individualism has a rich collective heritage.
But to bring any of this onscreen would be to undermine Lane’s centrality. The movie begins by showing him cooking pancakes for his daughters’ breakfast. It would be a completely different movie were it to start with Lane sitting at the table, waiting for either his wife or his daughters to cook pancakes for him. Although this scene establishes Lane as a new man, or house husband, and therefore conventionally feminized, it also, from the start, shows him as a provider of life’s basics, not a recipient.
To find a movie (two movies) that shows a successful collective effort to save the world, we have to look elsewhere.
By which I mean – here.
 Into the Woods, p 54-55.
 Into the Woods, p 56.
 Into the Woods, p 57.
 Into the Woods, p 136. Again, it’s worth looking ahead to World War Z, in which what Brad Pitt’s character realises is exactly this – the virus’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness. And that weakness is that it spares the already-weak. If a vaccine can be developed that makes the human appear to have a fatal disease, the zombie will spare them.
 If he’d been born a generation earlier, fractals would have been holograms – every part containing the whole.
 We’ve neatly come full circle. As you’ll remember, in the very first sentence of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell sideswipes the ‘mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo’. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, p 13.
 Into the Woods, p 210.
 Into the Woods, p 230.
 Into the Woods, p 227.
 Into the Woods, p 203.
 In the Acknowledgments, Max Brooks thanks Studs Terkel, famous as one of the great interviewers of the twentieth century, and General Sir John Hackett, author of The Third World War: August 1985, a speculative account of a future war written in the form of conventional narrative history, but also including episodic short story sections. World War Z, p 343.
 I mean this in terms of structure. I don’t mean that there are no examples of individual heroism in Max Brooks’ book – there are many. What I mean is that, structurally, the global ambition of World War Z the book requires it to be a decentred narrative.
 “World War Z 2 Writer Offers Script Development Update”, by Stephen Silver, https://screenrant.com/world-war-z-2-sequel-writer-script/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 11:51
 http://web.archive.org/web/20121020013552/http://www.zombiefiend.com/forum/topics/world-war-z-original, last accessed 24 Mar 2020, 10:33
 http://www.mzp-tv.co.uk/movie_scripts/Sci-fi%20and%20Fantasy/World%20War%20Z%20(J.%20Michael%20Straczynski%20-%202nd%20Draft).pdf, last accessed 24 Mar 2020, 10:34
 “World War Z’ Helmer Marc Forster Reflects On Watching His Zombie Movie Get Fed Through The Gossip Woodchipper”, by Mike Fleming Jnr, https://deadline.com/2013/06/world-war-z-helmer-marc-forster-reflects-on-watching-his-zombie-movie-get-fed-through-the-gossip-woodchipper-526701/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 12:27.
 Save the Cat! p 36.
 “World War Z: J. Michael Straczynski Interview – Co-Screen Story & Co-Screenplay”, June 24 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wy3Ny4SgIL4, last accessed 24 March 2020, 10:59.
 “What Really Happened When Harrison Ford Gave George Lucas Crap On Set,” Sean O’Connell, https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1702860/what-really-happened-when-harrison-ford-gave-george-lucas-crap-on-set, last accessed 7 April 2020, 9:32.
 J. Michael Straczynski, Second Draft, p 3.
 How he does this in the end is to feed his ill, otherwise-dying daughter with human flesh – turning her into a cannibal and traumatising her for life, because she thinks she’s no different to the zombies. And we only learn this at the very end of the movie. Here we find the kind of moral ambiguity that a character actor might be okay with. A Dustin Hoffman or a Philip Seymour Hoffman. But not a straight-down-the-middle Hollywood star. Do you want people looking up at you, the next movie they see, thinking, ‘That guy cooked up a human hand for supper?’
 Given President Trump’s magical thinking in response to COVID-19, I think Straczynski can lay claim to some fairly high-grade prophecy, here.
 The classic account of the star vehicle, and how it distorts a script, comes in William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood. He tells a great anecdote about The Great Santini, starring Robert Duvall.
 As the director Marc Forster said in a valedictory interview with Deadline, after the film became a hit, “what I love most about this movie is watching Brad’s character turn from everyday man into the reluctant hero”. “World War Z’ Helmer Marc Forster Reflects On Watching His Zombie Movie Get Fed Through The Gossip Woodchipper”, by Mike Fleming Jnr, https://deadline.com/2013/06/world-war-z-helmer-marc-forster-reflects-on-watching-his-zombie-movie-get-fed-through-the-gossip-woodchipper-526701/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 12:27.
 Save the Cat! p 31-2. I’m tempted to say that the movie is also The Golden Fleece genre. “A hero goes ‘on the road’ in search of one thing and winds up discovering something else – himself.” However, Gerry Lane doesn’t seem to need to discover all that much, except that he’s more heroic than he previously thought. Some of the flaws of the movie may be that it flip-flops between Dude with a Problem and The Golden Fleece.
 One of the versions of this script is available online, without attribution or date, at https://indiegroundfilms.iles.wordpress.com/2014/01/world-war-z.pdf, last accessed 26 March 2020, 11:40.
 But spelled ‘Warmbrumm’.
 When asked ‘How close were you?’ (i.e., to the beginning of the outbreak), Gerry says, “Face to face.” And at the Climax of the film, Gerry is even more face to face with the enemy – as the zombie’s teeth chatter within biting distance, but he fails to perceive Gerry.
 “Did Damon Lindelof save the World War Z movie?”, https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/did-damon-lindelof-save-the-world-war-z-movie/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 11:16.
 “Uh-Oh: ‘World War Z’ Going In for Seven Weeks of Reshoots?”, https://www.slashfilm.com/uhoh-world-war-z-weeks-reshoots/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 11:07.
 Story, p 309.
 Story, p 107.
 https://deadline.com/2013/06/world-war-z-helmer-marc-forster-reflects-on-watching-his-zombie-movie-get-fed-through-the-gossip-woodchipper-526701/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 12:27.
 “Did Damon Lindelof save the World War Z movie?”, https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/did-damon-lindelof-save-the-world-war-z-movie/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 11:13.
 Story, p 308.
 Story, p 308.
 At 01:34:00, we cut from Gerry’s face, looking at screens full of the zombies that stand between him and the Cave, to an exterior shot of the W.H.O. Facility. It is during this very quiet offscreen moment (perhaps the most subtle edit in the movie) that Gerry’s choice is made. When we cut back to him, Segan is helping him suit up by taping insulating foam to his forearm – as low rent armour against zombie bites. Gerry knows what he has to do.
 Story, p 309.
 https://deadline.com/2013/06/world-war-z-helmer-marc-forster-reflects-on-watching-his-zombie-movie-get-fed-through-the-gossip-woodchipper-526701/, last accessed 26 March 2020, 12:27.
 All timings are for the Extended Action Cut also known as the Unrated Version, as opposed to the Theatrical Version.
 His Waterworld, as Max Brooks joked at San Diego Comic-Con 2013 – referencing Kevin Costner’s folly.
 There’s video of him giving a full answer at San Diego Comic-Con 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXFdO3DwRLY, last accessed 28 March 2020, 10:48. He’s very positive about the movie here, during the period just after the release.
 Wikipedia entry on World War Z, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_Z, last accessed 7 April 2020, 10:41.
 World War Z, p 34.
Toby Litt has published novels, short story collections and comics. His most recent book is Patience, a novel. He runs the Creative Writing MFA at Birkbeck College, and blogs at www.tobylitt.com. He is a member of English Pen. When he is not writing, he likes sitting doing nothing.