Kneel Before Zed

[one_third_first]World_War_Z_poster[/one_third_first][one_third]Once again, I have abused the hospitality of the local screen/sugar merchants in an attempt to experience the finest entertainment that humanity has to offer. And once again, it sparked my brain into thinkings. But possibly not the ones you might expect.

(spoilers for World War Z and Man of Steel after the jump!)[/one_third][one_third_last]ManofSteelFinalPoster[/one_third_last]

There’s been enough said about the success and failure of both films to fill untold petabytes of storage, so I won’t debate the overall merits of the films here. Rob Bricken’s takedown of Man of Steel is hilarious and completely accurate, while World War Z has been scrutinised with a level of detail that we really ought to apply to our governments – this piece in The Guardian deals with the slavering anticipation of failure in a mildly amusing manner.

No, I’m more interested in what the two of them share, and the differing ways both have approached a similar problem: that of medium.

Neither of these films is an original piece. Both are adaptations from a different medium. And while most people’s understanding of adaptation boils down to “the book is always better”, I think there’s more to be said on the subject of how we transfer stories from one medium to another.

And here’s the contradiction, I think: while World War Z the film cannot even hope to match the quality of the book, it nevertheless succeeds as a film. And meanwhile, Man of Steel is superior to the original comic book version of the same story – yet in the end it fails.

In both cases, the problem comes down to how they decided to make the jump between different media – and which of them best navigated the limitations of the feature film.

Understanding Comics

First off: Man of Steel. As a comic book, Superman’s story can never look entirely photorealistic. Sure, you can substitute photos for the artwork if you like, but this is almost never done, and it works better that way. Anyone who’s read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics should be able to recall the reason: by abstracting the visuals into a less realistic form, the greater absurdity of the events on display comes to seem normal and acceptable. Or to put it another way: you can get away with the most ridiculous levels of violence if it looks cartoony.

Daffy's beak

Animated cartoons have been doing this kind of thing for as long as they’ve existed – Daffy Duck is repeatedly shot in the face during Rabbit Seasoning, but never has to do much more than realign his beak and take a moment’s rest before he’s back to being infuriated with everything. Can you imagine this cartoon being remade as live action? It wouldn’t get a U certificate, that’s for sure…

Kingdom Come

Superman is a less extreme example of the same effect, but nevertheless benefits from it a great deal. That’s not to say that it sticks to the same level of ‘cartoonishness’ at all times – there have been far too many Superman stories for that. The level of realism in the various stories can be raised or lowered according to how ‘serious’ the story is. For example, Kingdom Come examines the sociological effects of a world of superhumans, and therefore the painted artwork (by Alex Ross) is a far cry from Siegel and Schuster’s original cartoonish vision. Meanwhile, Frank Quitely’s work in All-Star Superman (a story which, while still being very thoughtful, nevertheless chooses to revel in the absurdity of Superman and his world), goes for bright colours and faces defined by relatively simple lines. In each new story, a choice is made that reflects the kind of tale being told.

All Star Superman

Man of Steel makes its choice as well: and where it can, it chooses reality. It’s been commended for making superhuman fights look more realistic than they ever have, and showing the destruction that accompanies such combat. But the filmmakers seem to have forgotten the way in which the medium of film influences how the images are perceived. The show the same scale of events as can be seen in the comics; but without the cushioning effect of the artwork, the devastation that results cannot be as lightly dismissed. The truth of violence in a realistic world is that people die. And when people die in their hundreds of thousands (as estimated by some clever people), that has an impact that goes far beyond the fight itself.

In a comic, the survivors of the devastion in Metropolis could be forgiven for being grateful for their survival and getting on with rebuilding with an almost cheerful air. In a photorealistic world, this reaction makes little sense. They’d be terrified. They’d want revenge. I doubt it would matter much that Superman was instrumental in defeating Zod, or that he had lived as an American for more than thirty years. Hell, no. They’d be tearing the country apart to find other such infiltrators, and accepting whatever restriction of their liberties was necessary. Sooner or later, they would hunt Superman down, to kill him or subject him to experimentation.

Would you trust a man whose adventures did this to your city?

But in the film, they lightly come to terms with the alien in their midst and accept that he is now their protector against a hostile universe. It would work if this were an animated film. Not in live action cinema.

And the annoying thing here is that Man of Steel is otherwise so much better than the original material: it takes a 1940-vintage comic written entirely for children and does all it can to make the characters psychologically interesting. Many people have complained that Pa Kent’s desperation to conceal Clark’s abilities at all costs is untrue to the spirit of the original. They’re right. But it works in a photorealistic world where people can actually be hurt (or subjected to medical experiments in the name of National Defence). It’s only when the visual story follows through on the realistic results of superhuman violence that the character story suddenly fails to match what we see on the screen.

WWZ Book Cover

World War Z takes a different path, and one which shows that the filmmakers knew what the medium could cope with (even if they may have had to reshoot a third of the film to achieve this).

Really, there was never much chance that the story and characters of World War Z could have made it to the cinema screen. To a large extent, this is because the book uses its medium so well. In adopting a documentary style, it’s able to do things like abandon the need for a central protagonist and linger over characters who make little or no contribution to defeating the zombie horde, but whose perspectives are nevertheless interesting. For example, there’s the story of the pilot who has to bail out over zombie-infested territory and survive a gruelling trek to safety, while possibly hallucinating a voice on the radio telling her how to survive. This moves the story forward not at all – it only helps to illuminate some side details of how people might get through the war. In an adaptation, the pilot would have to be given some crucial macguffin that links her into the rest of the story; without that, she would be cut altogether (as I think she was in the audiobook version, which did its best to slimline the story).

Max Brooks’ novel is good because it avoids using a straightforward narrative to tell its tale, and therefore creates a much more interesting story about a whole world struggling to survive a zombie epidemic. But in a cinema film, this kind of narrative is much more difficult to get away with, for reasons which come down to one real issue: scale.

If this were the book, each one of these people would have a story.

On the one hand, the breadth of World War Z is just too vast for cinema to cope with. There are too many characters and too many events for a film to be able to show. It’s only got about 120 minutes or so to work with, every single one of which has to contribute towards the eventual goal of getting the main character to the conclusion of the narrative. So pretty much every character in the book is cut from the film, with the exception of the only one that ties the whole thing together: the man from the UN who’s figuring out what happened. The story itself largely jettisoned in favour of a classical narrative that takes place during the early stages of the Zombie War. Therefore the UN historian becomes a UN investigator trying to figure out not what happened in the past, but what’s happening right now. There’s simply no time for reflection. The clock is ticking towards the end of the film, and it absolutely has to keep moving, or it’ll die.

Remember when anyone could afford their own zombie?

But the issue of scale brings a scalpel to the book in a different way as well, because of the sheer immensity of the events it depicts. Zombie films are known for being low-budget and small-scale, but World War Z could never be that – even though they got rid of much of the story, the title alone implies something massive. The book used the freedom of its medium to do what zombie films had never done before: show the global impact of a zombie outbreak. The film had to do that too, but this commitment to scale comes with a cost. A literal cost. About $200m, or possibly even $400m (if the most lurid estimates are to be believed).

Read this and you'll never have to watch another blockbuster again. Because this is the template for all of them.

The scale of the budget has implications for what kind of story can be told. A film this expensive absolutely has to be a blockbuster. Tickets must be sold. DVDs and Blu-rays must be bought. TV rights must be paid for. Increasingly, downloads and streaming services must also contribute. A blockbuster needs to be seen by the widest possible audience, and therefore it has little choice but to be more conservative in its storytelling. There has to be a protagonist. There has to be a problem that can be solved in a couple of hours of screen time. It has to have a 15 certificate to increase the number of people that can see it, meaning that it has to limit the violence. The narrative has to be structured as a Hero’s Journey (which it is, right down to the rather unnecessary moment where the protagonist Refuses the Call to Adventure).

(Of course, it’s always possible to make a fantastic movie without these strictures, but you won’t have much luck convincing a studio to give you $200m unless it meets these criteria. They’re not financing a piece of art; they’re making an investment. And this is what they know about making these investments pay off).

Nothing to do with the book but awesome anyway.

And so here’s what the makers of World War Z have done: they’ve realised that the book cannot be made into a film, let alone one with a massive budget. So they’ve abandoned that goal entirely and written something else that uses the book as a reservoir of source material, but which otherwise ignores it completely. And when they screwed it up the first time, they had the nerve to reshoot the final act of the film to create a narrative that completes the protagonist’s journey, rather than have him leading a fightback in Russia which left the family-man story unfinished.

It’s not a great movie, by anyone’s standards. The 15 rating is ridiculous for a zombie film. The macguffin only makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard. The Hero’s Journey template is deeply irritating. The characters are dull, the plot is thin and there are ridiculous holes in the story.

(If you want to keep in contact with an agent in the field, DO NOT give him a satellite phone that only allows him to call his wife…)

But World War Z plays to the strengths of the medium wherever it can. The zombie attacks are on a scale that no other film has attempted, and they absolutely work. A big audience wants action, and they damn well get it. A lot of the budget may have been wasted – but you can still see a pretty massive slice of it on the screen. The mistake it made was in even trying to use this particular medium in the first place – but, having made that mistake, it makes the best of a bad situation. It knows what it can do inside its medium, and sticks to it well enough to avoid being the disaster everyone predicted. It’ll probably make its money back.

DO IT LIKE THIS YOU FOOLS

So here’s what it all boils down to: Superman works best as a comic, and probably always will, because a photorealistic world of superheroes would be too awful and violent for family-friendly adventures. Just read All-Star Superman instead. It's much better.

And in a decade or two, once the film has been forgotten, somebody really needs to adapt World War Z again – this time using the right medium. There are suggestions online that it should be done like Ken Burns’ The Civil War. These suggestions are wrong, if only because it pulls its punches too much with sepia-tinted nostalgia. It needs to be done like The World at War, a documentary series that covers a world-wide conflict of unprecedented scale and horror. You'd be able to have interviews with actors playing veterans. And see surviving zombies being killed. And video footage made to look as though it was shot during the zombie war. And... ah, crap, this is getting too expensive again, isn't it?

Just use this guy to remember.

Oh, and the letter Z is pronounced Zed. Partly because it’s derived from the Greek letter zeta, but also because it’s the last letter of the alphabet and ZED ACTUALLY SOUNDS LIKE IT’S THE END OF SOMETHING. Got it? Good.

(Just try saying it to yourself. World War Zed sounds so much better than World War Zee)