Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” imagines a world overrun by a zombie pandemic, leading to an unlikely new global power structure. Two of the few countries that have kept the zombies at bay are Israel, which shelters Israelis and Palestinians behind a wall, and North Korea, which has removed the teeth of its citizens to prevent zombie biting.
It’s a curious portrait of geopolitics that’s left some moviegoers scratching their heads. Is a wall of unity for both Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem an ironic commentary on the West Bank barrier being constructed by Israel alongside Palestine? Or a suggestion that a wall - which resembles the Western Wall - can be a positive force in the Middle East?
There’s little time for rumination on such questions in “World War Z” before the next swarm of zombies attacks. Any whiff of foreign policy contemplation is snuffed out by the stampeding undead, who seem about as interested in politics as the average summer moviegoer.
But in their wake, some have questioned just what, exactly, “World War Z,” is saying about Israel.
“Will (foreign moviegoers) conclude that the filmmakers (are) saying that Kim Jong-un and Benjamin Netanyahu are the wisest leaders in the world, except that Kim is a little bit wiser, because he’s uncontaminated by humanitarian sentiments?” wrote Hendrik Hertzberg for The New Yorker. “North Koreans still have a few teeth in their heads, but Israel has already built a wall. Will foreign audiences, or potential audiences, interpret the film’s message to be that the only thing wrong with the existing wall is that it’s not sealed tight enough?”
The Los Angeles Times’ Steven Zeitchik wrote: “In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a wall is a heavily fraught symbol. But here it turns into an instrument of peace?”
Any murkiness is partly the result of the tortured, rewritten path to movie theaters taken by “World War Z,” which opened last weekend in North America with a higher than expected $66.4 million at the box office and plans for a sequel.
The film is loosely based on Max Brooks’ 2006 novel “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.” Modeled on Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II,” Brooks’ book is a collection of dispatches from around the globe years after a zombie outbreak.
Pitt’s production company, Plan B, pursued the rights aggressively, winning them for $1 million over competing bidder Leonardo DiCaprio. But though Pitt was initially attracted to “World War Z” for its provocative hypothesizing of various nations’ handling of a worldwide epidemic, the need for a more linear narrative soon took precedence.
After many rewrites over the course of years, much of the book was whittled away, eventually producing a film (the ending to which was reshot) with only cursory relation to the novel. Whereas the book deals centrally with geopolitical allegory, pieced together from multiple perspectives, the film is limited to the narrow viewpoint of one United Nations inspector (Pitt) trying to make sense of the catastrophe as its happening.
“It got too dense,” Pitt, also a producer, said in an interview last week. “We got too weighed down on it. We spent a couple years on it. We couldn’t get it into one movie. We had to walk a line between using the film as a Trojan horse for some of that, but these things have to be fun. And we were bored, ourselves.”
In the book, uninfected Jews and Palestinians are quarantined behind a huge wall in Jerusalem. The haven is spoiled not by zombies, but by civil war, which breaks out when Israel’s ultra-orthodox rebel. In the film, the Jerusalem scene (shot in Malta) is the film’s grandest set piece (seen widely in TV ads) where zombies mount the wall like ants.
The use of such regionally sensitive imagery will likely be hotly debated when it opens in Israel on July 11.
Brooks, who’s the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, declined to be interviewed for this article. He’s previously distanced himself from the movie. In a video posted by Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University in May, Brooks said the movie is “World War Z” “in name only.” Pitt’s U.N. inspector isn’t a character in the book, and Brooks reportedly requested that his publisher, Random House, not print new editions of the book with Pitt’s face on the cover.
A sequel to the film may follow, which could give the producers a chance to delve deeper into the book’s ideas. Moving forward a few years would also sync up chronologically with the novel.
One of the most notable changes to the geopolitics of “World War Z,” though, dealt with another part of the world.
In the book, the outbreak begins in China, but the movie vaguely sources it to other parts of Asia. Faithfulness to the book in this instance, would have almost certainly kept the Paramount release out of the lucrative Chinese movie market, which is carefully restricted by the government.
Even when zombies run amok, box-office interests are carefully protected.