Welcome to my very first Book to Screen Review, where I will be analyzing books that have been turned into major motion pictures and television shows. This is not a critical review of the movies, shows or books. Rather, I will be analyzing the differences between the two and how those changes affect the story. What do you, as the reader or viewer get from this perspective which is unique and different? In which ways did the screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, and editors view differ from that of the original author? What story were they trying to tell?
The first book to screen review is Z for Zacharia, a young adult fiction novel written by Robert C. O’Brien in 1974 and it’s 2015 big screen adaptation.
Typically, this is the part where I’d briefly summarize the overall story, however, in this case the original novel and major motion picture are so different in plot, I will briefly have to summarize each.
Z for Zacharia (Novel)
In this young adult novel by Robert C. O’Brien, nuclear war has snuffed out most known life in the country, turning the U.S (or possibly the whole world – the scope of the destruction is unknown) into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Ann Burden is a 16 year-old girl who lives in a valley that has miraculously avoided the destruction, but she is the only one left alive there. She has been alone for over a year on her family farm with only her books, and the few farm animals to keep her company. One day, she notices smoke in the dead wastelands and realizes there is someone out there, heading for the valley. She is cautious not to make herself known, but watches from afar for days until he finds the valley. The man is a 30 something year old researcher from New York who has survived the radioactive wasteland by staying in a special “safe-suit” and tent. His name is John Loomis, and he is amazed to find this valley. So amazed, he throws caution to the wind and bathes in a stream that runs through it that is highly toxic and deadly. The man falls ill and Ann decides to finally check on him. Ann nurses John back to health,and with his instruction begins to make the most out of the farm she lives on, getting the tractor to work again, cultivating different plants, figuring out ways to get electricity again. With the promise Mr. Loomis brings and his insistence on planning for the future, Ann begins to dream again of a future. Perhaps with Mr. Loomis. But these dreams are short lived, as his delirium leads Mr. Loomis to reveal dark secrets about his past that leave Ann uneasy and wondering exactly what kind of person Mr. Loomis is. As he recovers, he becomes more insistent, more possessive and more frightening until Ann fears staying in the house with him and flees. But Mr. Loomis isn’t willing to let her go easily. He goes to dangerous measures to get her back; including, but not limited to, starving her out, hunting her, trying to trap her, and trying to maim her. The novel ends when Ann, unable to bring herself to kill the man but also unwilling to live in fear in the valley any longer, steals his safe-suit and tank and decides to leave the valley herself. She confronts Mr. Loomis one last time to tell him her intentions. Mr Loomis is unable to bring himself to shoot her but cannot convince her to stay and points Ann in a promising direction for where she may find more life.
Z for Zacharia (Film)
The film, Z for Zacharia, directed by Craig Zobel and starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine takes the post apocalyptic wasteland of the novel and takes the story in a whole different direction. Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) is a young woman living alone on her family’s farm; the only known survivor of a nuclear war that has wiped out nearly all life as she knows it. One day she notices a cart with supplies and signs of life abandoned on the road and follows the sounds of a person walking. The man in the suit gets out and is amazed to find living plants trees and animals, and in his excitement bathes in a radioactive stream. Realizing what he’s doing, Ann reveals herself to warn him. This is John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and he soon becomes ill but Ann brings him back to the house and slowly nurses him back to health. As he recovers, the two begin a slow, tense, and awkward romance. Unsure if they will ever meet another living soul they begin to fall for each other. Things get complicated however, when, one day, Ann finds another man living in the valley, Caleb (Chris Pine) and brings him back to the house. Two men and one woman makes things in the house tense. John feels insecure with the handsome, young Caleb now in the picture and Ann feels conflicted. However, the addition of another pair of hands makes the task of assembling a water wheel for electricity a much simpler task and the three live in a quiet peace in the house. Soon the water wheel is finished and the three celebrate with drinking, dancing, and a very awkward and sexually charged swim in the pond. That night, Mr. Loomis tells Ann he is in love with her before passing out drunk. Ann then goes to Caleb’s room and has sex with him. Awkward! There is no denying the change in atmosphere the following morning but John tries hard to keep his jealousy at bay. The two men finish work on the water wheel and get it running but as Caleb climbs up the side of the cliff, he slips. His life is literally in John’s hands. John later returns to the house and before Ann has a chance to apologize for the previous night, John tells her that Caleb has left and taken the safety suit. They are alone on the farm again in their eerie, disquiet peace.
When a book is adapted to screen it can be argued, and often is argued, that the film is based on and inspired by the book. It cannot directly adapt the entire book. Changes will be made not only to fit the new medium but also the personal style of the director. The book and film, then, are two different stories build around the same premise. What makes this adaption so interesting, however, is that the film quite literally is a different story altogether. In fact, its a completely different genre.
The original novel was a science fiction thriller, slow burning and eerie and told entirely from Ann’s perspective. The reader, therefore, only knows as much about Mr. Loomis as Ann does. The author accomplishes this by having the novel read as a diary that Ann is keeping. The diary is something precious to Ann that she needs to keep safe and record her thought down in. It is a means of gathering her thoughts, keeping track of how much time has passed and holding on to her sanity. Through her journal entries we gain a picture of who Ann is and how her mind works. Since her life has become the rfarm she lives on and her daily chores, most of the things she does in to detail about are about her farm and her daily chores. Once Mr. Loomis comes in to the picture and she becomes invested in his well being, it switches focus on what she does to nurse him back to health, her fear for his life, the loneliness of being left alone again. Finally, as he recovers and she realizes how much she doesn’t know about him, she records the instances that made her feel unnerved, as as the reader, we are unnerved for her.
Towards the end, Ann is being hunted down by this man, fearful for her life. She is a 16 year-old girl hiding from an older man who is obsessed with having control over her. In this telling, the title of the novel is symbolic. She states early in the book of an ABC bible reading book, one of the few left in her home. A is for Adam; the first man. She mentions how she always thought that since Z is for Zachariah was the last entry, that Zacharia was the last man. Because we do not now what becomes of Ann after she leaves the valley, we do not know if Mr. Loomis really is her “Zacharia”. As frightening, and tormented as he may be, Mr. Loomis may be the last man on earth.
The film on the other hand is a human study and a romance drama set in a bleak dystopian future. Although Ann is the first character we see, the film isn’t told from her perspective. It is more of a bubble. Every gesture and word from the actors mouth is so nuanced, you’re not sure if you believe any of them. Ann holds her innocence, not because of the naivety of youth but because she has become a devout believer and preachers daughter. Religion is much more prominent in the mind of the film’s Ann, which explains her behavior towards these two men who enter her world. The film puts the valley in a bubble and does not reveal anything about the characters that can’t be seen by the other characters in that scene. In this way, the audience is unable to get a clear picture if someone is lying, honest, manipulative, or insincere. Ann seems loyal and upbeat but her dishonesty about her feelings towards Caleb are telling. Caleb is charming but almost too charming. He seems as though he has ulterior motives, bu tif he did, they are never fully realized by anyone. Loomis appears to have Ann’s best interests at heart, but his behavior when he drinks, the secrets he keeps, and Caleb’s sudden “decision to leave the valley” cause the audience to wonder if this man is stable.
The result in theme is drastically different; whereas the novel, targetted towards young adults reads like the worst possible “stranger danger” scenario and the film, targetted towards a mature critical film audience, watches like a documentary on human dynamics under stress. In the novel Mr. Loomis is bad. He is an antagonistic force. He is a complex character but still, not a good man and certainly not someone Ann should be forced to be alone with, even if he is the last man on earth. The film is not so black and white. Loomis is heavily flawed but not necessarily bad. He is possibly dangerous, but we don’t know for sure. Caleb is also not bad. He may very well have been Ann’s last chance to have a partner that truly understands her and matches her. He may also have been a dangerous shifter who would say anything to get what he wants. I would daresay this post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve story differs from the novel in that, in the book, “Adam” was evil and drove “Eve” from her personal Eden whereas the film actually introduces a “serpent” character that egg our characters towards temptation.
In all, both novel and film where interesting to ponder in their own rights but whether one’s story was better expressed than the other’s is hard to determine. Afterall, the original novel was finished posthumously by his wife and daughter based on his notes and the film took very generous liberties with the plot, its hard to determine which story is more authentic.
Personally, as a story that I would enjoy reading or watching, I’d give a (very) slight edge to the original novel. I prefer my female characters to be active in moving the story along.