World War Z

The movie wasn’t very good, even if you don’t source from the book. Way too many suspensions of disbelief, and the more you know of how things work the worse it gets. A C-130 taking off (without JATOs) from the deck of an aircraft carrier. A slow-moving plague that fully infects all hosts in less than 15 seconds. Squeaky bicycles taken even though (a) everybody knows the noise attracts them and (b) the riders have to move at a walking pace and (c) they’re not carrying any more load than they were before they had the bicycles. ergh, I could go on in that line but I won’t.

The more devastating point is that it lays claim to the book as its source. That’s bad, because I truly think that later generations will consider World War Z one of the classics of our time – similar to how some of Wells or Verne is held today. Yes, I really think it’s that good, and if you haven’t read it you should.

In case you haven’t read it, the book’s structure is an homage to Studs Terkel’s The Good War. The compiler/editor of the book introduces himself in the first chapter. Post-war, he went out and collected oral histories of participants both major and minor and transcribed their tales as small vignettes. Collected they tell the story of the war not as grand strategy but as a montage of ‘this happened to me’ events, from first incidents to the state of the world after we’ve won.

The structure is why so many hollywood people turned it down. How do you take this story that’s got dozens of protagonists and make it one large tale in a movie? Not the way Brad Pitt did it, but I applaud the attempt.

For what it’s worth, I have a concept of how I’d do it. I’d make it a television series. 15-18 episodes total. Yes, I would still hack it do different than the book but bear with me.

The show intro – not the pilot, the little ‘this is what’s happening’ spiel – would be a recap of chapter 1. That’s basically “we went through WWZ, I got all this together for the UN after action report, my boss just wanted grand strategy stuff and told me to do what I want with the rest. Here’s the tales of those who went through it.” And with that, we’re off.

A major starting point is the fact that Chapter 9 has 13 parts. Chapter 9 is the ‘where we are now’ chapter, the conclusion/denouement. 13 is a good short season. And most of those 13 parts’ presenters are people who appear in at least two of what I’ll call ‘action parts’.

The rest of the book, you see, is 45 ‘parts’ split between seven chapters (2-8). In the book each chapter represents a phase: warnings, the great panic, turning the tide, etc. For several of the later parts we return to people or places we were before. At worst we go to a second person the first person specifically referenced. Half a dozen or so of the tales are one-off stragglers that won’t fit cleanly with anything else. But the remainder can be gathered, grouping 2-3 of those tales into stories and giving us 15 or so longer tales.

Using most of the 13 existing conclusions and writing equivalent tales for the others we can get a single season series. Each episode is the couple-three tales with obvious segue to denote passage of time, then off to the conclusion. For series pacing I would try to keep the tales that include chapters 7 and 8 as later in the overall arc, but because of the way the tale gets told it can survive network schedule games that rearrange and skip.

Practically, it’s unlikely to get bought by a US network. It’s got two major flaws from that point of view. First, there’s no developing star. With the exception of the narrator at the intro (and maybe acting during the denouement) each episode uses a new cast. Second, it’s a one-and-done. As designed there’s no intent or hook for a second season. Oh, if you had to you could use the straggler parts as basis for some and recreate the style for another dozen or so episodes but I’m afraid it would quit telling the tale and just be more adventures in the zombie apocalypse. (which actually might sell, come to think about it. But it would quit being the book.)

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong, or to tell me how to do what I’d do in better detail. I’m always willing to learn.

and in the meantime, have fun.

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