Monday, June 29, 2015

Z for Zcreepy

The Internet Movie Database seems tailor-made for "rabbit-trail" research: look up a particular movie, intending to find out who that actor is that you can't quite place, and you end up looking up someone else, and a movie she was in -- and before you know it, you're eight links away from where you started, and only your browser's search history remembers how you got there. So I approached IMDB's ad for Z for Zachariah carefully, intrigued by something new and post-apocalyptic, but not wanting to get drawn too far down the pop-culture rabbit hole. The synopsis didn't promise much in the way of originality, but the movie's based on a novel by a name I knew: Robert C. O'Brien, probably better-known as the author of the Newbery-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (yes, it was adapted into The Secret of NIMH, but please don't judge the book by it, even if you liked it!), and a National Geographic contributor under his real name, Robert Leslie Conly. Thus ends the rabbit trail; but since I find it helpful to balance my nonfiction reading and writing with a novel, I picked up Z for Zachariah on my next visit to Mills Library (Thanks, McMaster, for free alumni library cards!). If you're a see-the-book-before-reading-the-movie geek like me, read on...

Yes, it seems weird that the same person who wrote an acclaimed children's book also penned something that could be readily adapted into a post-apoc love triangle. But it doesn't take long for the commonalities between Mrs. Frisby and Z to emerge. For one, they're both well-written for their respective audiences. The former puts its main characters (Mrs. Frisby, her family, and friends she makes along the way) in occasional jeopardy, both in their present and in the rats' backstory; this allows moments of empathy, tragedy, suspense, and joy, but never beyond what, say, a precocious six-year-old could cope with. Z, which won O'Brien a posthumous Edgar Award, takes the form of a journal, newly started by a lone teenager; it begins with beautiful, suspenseful simplicity ("May 20: I am afraid. Someone is coming."), appears to offer some promise of a hopeful future, then gradually steals that promise away, in ways that are definitely not for younger audiences. For another similarity, both books convey a healthy respect for the day-to-day details of farming -- not just as survival, but as the grounding of personal dignity, too.

That said, it's easy to see why Z lends itself to Hollywood adaptation, and why it does so now, when the novel is nearly 40 years old. Although the love-triangle aspect is added for the movie (after the first few pages of backstory, there are only two characters in the book), Z anticipates pop culture's current infatuation with ever-more-disturbing stories of young adults being forced, with varying degrees of nuance, to kill or be killed; The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series are only the most (in)famous examples. There are several moments in Z that read like Misery for young adults. The problem's not that it's not good storytelling (quite the opposite; I took a few mental notes for my own novel), it's just that it's also just plain creepy.

I'm not sure I'll see the movie, but I wonder if Z was also chosen for adaptation because it's subtly suited to post-Christendom. The title derives from the heroine's description of a Bible alphabet book: she remembers reasoning, as a child, that if A is for Adam, the first man, then Zachariah must be the last man -- foreshadowing the problems of encountering someone who may be the last man on earth. On the one hand, it would be interesting to see how (and if!) the title is explained in the movie, to an audience less biblically literate than the protagonist herself. On the other hand, it's more than interesting: it would illustrate just how well-matched the post-apocalyptic genre and post-Christendom culture are. Weirdly, they might be the perfect couple -- even if neither of them understands why that is. 

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