Ah, film adaptations from novels. Sometimes I’m guilty of watching them before buying the books. Case in point: Lord of the Rings (which turned out to be my favourite book series of all time), the Shawshank Redemption and The Hunger Games. World War Z is another such example. After seeing Brad Pitt in action – escaping zombies in downtown New York, cutting an Israeli soldier’s hand off to prevent infection, dodging Zs on a plane – it was hard to resist grabbing a copy when I saw it on sale at a bookstore. The official title is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, but I guess that would be a mouthful for movie audiences, hence the shortened version lol.
Note: There is little to nothing in common between the book and the film, other than the fact that they’re both about a zombie apocalypse.
Fun fact: The original script that got greenlighted for production was closer to the novel, but they scrapped it in favour of a more action-oriented one.
The story is told through a series of interviews by the narrator, who is not named – but we know that he is an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission and that the war with zombies is already over. The timeline traces back to Patient Zero in China, where the outbreak is said to have originated. The Chinese government begins to take measures to cover up the disease, but it still manages to spread through human trafficking, refugees and the black market organ trade – until a large scale outbreak in South Africa brings the plague to public attention.
The story then chronicles how different countries/organizations handle the crisis as they struggle not just to to contain and combat the infection, but also desperate human beings reacting to desperate times. Israel, for example, closes down its borders, but has to deal with an ultra-Orthodox uprising which leads to a civil war. Driven by opportunistic greed, some companies begin marketing placebo vaccines – with the government happily lying to the people in order to create some sense of national stability.
A period called the ‘Great Panic’ ensues, in which Pakistan and Iran destroy each other in a nuclear war, and zombies overrun New York City. The US military takes a stand at the Battle of Yonkers, but suffers a devastating defeat after realizing that their modern weapons and tactics are ineffective against zombies. Mankind was on the brink of destruction.
Finally, in South Africa, the government adopts the Redeker Plan, which establishes small sanctuaries of people with a high chance of surviving, whilst leaving the remaining groups of survivors abandoned in special zones to distract the undead. Horrible as it sounds, the plan works and other governments start implementing the same policy.
It’s not only the governments that are interviewed, as the narrator speaks to everyday people to get an insight into how life was like for them during the War. Readers are introduced to a young girl who fled with her family to the cold wastes of the US’s North(since zombies freeze in the cold) and when the food ran out, people resorted to cannibalism… including her own parents.
Three astronauts left on the International Space Station during the War describe how they observed mega swarms of zombies on the American Great Plains and Central Asia, and how it affected the Earth’s atmosphere, while a renegade Chinese submarine abandons the country.
The story shifts to how mankind slowly rebuilds some semblance of civilization. Rationing, reorganization and food cultivation become the new main pillars of society, as people with practical skills such as carpentry and construction are prized over pre-war, desk-bound jobs. Governments are also slowly taking back infected areas, as they are now better equipped, having learnt from previous fights on how to deal with zombies. Basic but effective weapons and trained dogs are just among some of their arsenal, but the story also describes how they had to deal with armed groups of rebels and hostile survivors.
The political landscape of countries have changed. Cuba becomes the world’s most thriving economy, China is now a democracy, Russia turns back to religious theocracy, and Palestine and Israel are finally at peace. While the threat is far from over, as millions of zombies are still active around the planet including in the depths of the ocean, the book ends on a hopeful note that slowly but surely, the world starts over from where it began.
I haven’t come across many novels that tell the story ‘backwards’ – that’s to say, you already know what has happened and the rest of the book just recounts events leading up to that conclusion (or in this case, the introduction). The only other one I know of is The Lovely Bones, which, although a favourite of many, did not make my ‘good book’ list.
With WWZ, however, this format makes for a very refreshing read. “How exciting can it be? Stuff has already happened, it’s more like a summary,” you might say, but I beg to differ. Brooks is a master of his craft: the story is objective and reads like a report, but injected with enough suspense and human elements to leave readers wondering what happens ‘next’. He also divides it into short sections (just like how you’d read a magazine/newspaper interview) and this technique keeps the reader spellbound and interested, as opposed to one long, draggy narrative.
Some of the recurring themes are that of survival and humanity. The undead is a constant threat, but ultimately, the heart of the novel lies in the interactions and decisions made by human beings in their fight to survive. There are shining examples of bravery, compassion and kindness, and equally horrific examples of callousness, ignorance, cruelty, and the dark side of human nature.
Brooks throws many uncomfortable moral scenarios which forces the readers to question themselves on what they would do in a character’s’ shoes.
Take, for example, the girl who escaped to the cold reaches of North America with her parents, where she witnesses a cheerful, helpful community turn on each other when food runs out. When the character falls sick and there is no food, she is delighted to be served hot meat broth – only to find out later that her parents had traded something of value for human meat, so that she wouldn’t die.
The Redeker plan, implemented by the S/A government, puts those with a high chance of survival above those with a slimmer chance, using the latter as zombie cannon fodder. In an ideal world, everyone can be saved, but Brooks forces the reader to consider what we would do to ensure our survival as a species.
The frightening thing about WWZ? It reads as ‘fiction’, but the scenarios it presents are very real. Not in the sense that the dead are rising up anytime soon, but our responses to threats – both on a larger scale as well as a personal one. It is a well written commentary on social and political issues, class, race, the psyche, and our instinct to survive no matter the cost. While most zombie apocalypse novels will have you on the edge of your seat wondering what happens to the protagonist, World War Z will keep you up well into the night, reflecting on our humanity. And that, to me, is the mark of a great novel.