A Surreal Journey
Author Isaac Marion Charts Warm Bodies Path from Book to Screen
For Isaac Marion, talking about his best-selling book Warm Bodies isnít a new experience. Neither is speaking to people about the film adaptation directed and scripted by 50/50 filmmaker Jonathan Levine. But as regular as these occurrences have become, doing it here in Seattle has given the acclaimed novelist room for pause. Why? He was born and raised in the city, sitting down at a local hotel in order to speak with a seemingly never-ending series of journalists picking his brain about both book and movie not something he could have anticipated growing up.
Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies © Summit Entertainment
ďItís very surreal,Ē he says with a shy chuckle. ďItís not just that itís exciting and fun, but itís also kind of a weird in-between between terrifying and exciting. Itís dreamlike. The whole process is pretty hard to wrap my head around. Itís been going on for about two years, but every once in a while, like when I get to come home and talk about the book, it just hits me that this is all happening and how unlikely the whole thing seems.Ē
The story of Warm Bodies concerns itself with a zombie named R (played in the film by Nicholas Hoult) Ė so-called because his undead brain canít quite recall his real name Ė who longs to be more than he actually is. That chance comes in the form of Julie (Teresa Palmer), a beautiful young woman who, instead of eating, R saves, taking her back to his gigantic commercial airliner residence to protect from the remaining zombie menace aimlessly wandering outside. What proceeds is the most unlikely of romances, a deadly flesh-eater slowly starting to regain his lost humanity the more this wary woman begins to trust and bond with him.
Itís an unusual premise to say the least, and one Marion was never sure he could pull off within the confines of a novel. ďThe short story I originally started out with was a departure from the stuff I normally write,Ē explains the author. ďIt was kind of a little joke that dropped within the confines of the really dark, disturbing stories. I remember [wondering] if I should even have posted it [on my website], that no one would want to read it. Then it became by far my most popular story, it struck some sort of nerve, and thatís what made me think I should explore it a little more.Ē
ďAs I was writing the novel, I never thought that Iíd be writing a zombie novel Ė it wasnít really a genre I was familiar with other than the typical mythology Ė let alone that it would end up becoming what it has. [Warm Bodies] is literally defining my entire life. Zombies. This book. This movie. Itís been an adjustment period coming to terms with how unlikely the direction my life and my work has taken.Ē
In some ways not having a solid base in zombie history, not being a fan of all of the movies, books, comics, graphic novels, video games and everything else associated with the creatures, was freeing. He wasnít beholden to any of the mythology that had come before, his unfamiliarity with so much of it allowing him to take his characters on any kind of journey he so desired.
ďIt was never that I loved zombie,Ē laughs Marion. ďThatís true. It was just that I had an idea, and I thought potentially it could be a good idea. I took all this knowledge of the mythology that I just innately had from just absorbing it out of the pop culture atmosphere and use it to do very different things than it is usually used for. I wanted to turn it inside out. Look at the clichťs and apply them as metaphors for various things. It wasnít I was going out to write a zombie novel instead it was coming at it from the outside in order to explore and have fun. I didnít feel like I had to follow any particular rules even though I did want to stay within the known mythology, to take the tropes and blend them all together while also hopefully crafting a story readers could relate to and enjoy.Ē
Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies © Summit Entertainment
There were other surprises that came along the way during the creation of the novel, not the least of which was the discovery that Marion was writing more about his own life experiences and philosophies than he ever could have anticipated beforehand. ďOne of the strangest things about this whole experience is that not only did this book become a departure from what I normally do despite being an odd experiment for me it also become one of the most personal stories that Iíd written,Ē he says sincerely.
ďIn a way, it helped fuel major changes in my own life in regards to my own world view and on my philosophy of living. It was changing hand-in-hand at the same time as the process of writing about this character. In a way, writing about R helped me get through some of those transformations. When I look back on it, the thought that writing this kind of absurd premise would be the thing that would most resonate with me seems so bizarre yet thatís exactly what happened.Ē
With that being the case, considering how much the book ended up meaning to the author and how much of himself he ended up putting inside of it and its characters selling it to Hollywood to adapt into a motion picture couldnít have been easy. Or could it? ďItís not hard whether or not to decide to do it,Ē says Marion. ďI hate to use the term no-brainer because it sounds like a terrible pun but, really, thatís exactly what it was. It wasnít like I was hesitating as to whether not to let [Warm Bodies] go, it didnít really feel like I had a reputation to preserve because, really, at the time I was a nobody. It was more that I just wanted something to happen, that they [Hollywood] would follow through and make the movie. When Jonathan came aboard, suddenly I felt a lot more comfortable.Ē
ďIt was scarier at the very beginning after I had sold [the book] but didnít know what they were going to do with it. It could mean anything. It probably meant they [the studio] were going to tinker around with it a bit, have multiple writers take a crack and then shelve it in some backroom somewhere. Additionally, they could have taken the movie in so many different directions, could have completely reinvented the whole concept, butchered it, that was always a potential outcome. When you look at the history of movies based on books itís amazing some of the directions they go. But thankfully thatís not what happened. The movie is much better than it could have been. Itís something I can be proud of. Thatís a huge relief.Ē
The first initial pangs of that relief happened when Marion met with the filmís eventual director Jonathan Levine. Fresh off making The Wackness and in the middle of putting the finishing touches on his highly acclaimed sophomore effort 50/50, he came to the project with a distinct vision and many strong ideas the bookís author immediately responded to.
ďWhen I first met with Jonathan he was talking about other apocalyptic films that he was thinking of that might influence this one,Ē he recalls. ďWe talked about Children of Men. We talked about Danny Boyle. We talked about other, non-apocalyptic films like some of my favorite stuff like Charlie Kaufmanís work, specifically Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is funny and weird but isnít at all a spoof. He knows good movies, and when we were talking he put me much more at ease. I knew he was going to apply some class to it and wasnít going to transform my story into some sort of travesty.Ē
Even with the trust building up between the two men itís still difficult to see oneís words refashioned by someone else. In the case of a book transforming into a motion picture, Marion had to allow Levine room to make the story his own. But those changes do add up. In the movie both R and Julie are younger than their respective incarnations are within the confines of the novel. Gone is the zombieís signature red tie, the small piece of clothing replaced by a blood red hoodie. As for the ending? Itís different, too, Levine going in a bit more distinct a direction that the somewhat ethereal, nondescript coda offered up within the book.
Nicholas Hoult, Rob Corddry and screenwriter/director Jonathan Levine on the set of Warm Bodies © Summit Entertainment
ďIím not the kind of author that screams, ĎFollow my vision!íĒ he says with a smile. ďIím not a director or anything but Iíve seen enough movies to understand you canít follow a book to exact letter. I understand the different storytelling styles between a book and movie. I was pretty realistic going into it. I do get that some of the fans are going to nitpick. Theyíre not going to understand why every line of dialogue from the book isnít in this hour-a-half movie.Ē
ďOf course, thatís not possible. You canít fit everything from a book inside the confines of a movie unless you want it to be 15 hours long. In the process of condensing a story it must get changed a little bit as well. If you cut all of this other stuff out for time, than the ending I may have imagined no longer makes sense or it doesnít flow emotionally in quite the same way. I understand that process so I wasnít breathing down [Jonathanís] neck the whole time about choices and decisions he made in regards to changes. Donít get me wrong, there were times I wasnít completely sold on a change, but he always seemed to have a reason and, at the very least, was willing to have a conversation. I just wanted him to make a good movie.Ē
Yet those fans can be extremely vocal, yelling from the rooftops when their favorite moment or what the feel is a signature sequence of their treasured novel isnít redone to their specific expectations within the confines of a movie adaptation. For them, the author has a somewhat novel way of trying to put things into perspective.
ďSome people look at adaptions as visual transcriptions of a novel,Ē explains Marion. ďTo me, I look at it more like a cover song. Itís a new artist creating their own spin on an original work. You donít listen to a cover song and thing thatís not the same note the original artist sang. You want it to capture the feel. To achieve the same sort of mood. You want the new artists to do the original justice yet make the song their own. Thatís how I feel about adaptations.Ē
ďI appreciate that they care so much about my story that they want it to be faithful. The fact that they get worked up about that is flattering. So, with that being the case, I donít want to be like, ĎYouíre an idiot. Figure out how films work. Stop complaining.í That would be insane on my part. But I do know how films work so I donít want to completely take their side. I just try to be diplomatic about it and try to explain as best I can, try to convince them to watch it as a movie and not watch it based on how similar Ė or dissimilar Ė it is to the book.Ē
As for R, Julie and zombies in general, Marion is ready to be done with the lot of them, but not before one final story gets told. ďI am working on a sequel to Warm Bodies,Ē he confirms, ďbut when itís finished that will be my last statement as far as zombies are concerned. I do have to remind myself as Iím writing to not picture Teresa Palmer with long blonde hair or Nicholas Hoult with a red tie instead of a red hoodie, but thatís a small problem. The greater one is coming up with a story and a narrative that people feels moves the story forward and doesnít just rehash what Iíve already done before. I spend a lot of time thinking about the book. Itís pretty ingrained in there.Ē
With all the buzz surrounding the film version of Warm Bodies, the author canít help become overjoyed when he thinks about where his life has ended up. At the same time, he almost just as equally canít wait for a return to some form of quiet normalcy. ďItís an exciting time,Ē says Marion with a grin. ďItís almost too exciting. Itís a little overwhelming. Itís been a long time since Iíve been able to go about my daily routine and step into a Seattle coffee shop and write.Ē
Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies © Summit Entertainment
ďItís really exciting, yes, but Iím also looking forward to it all dying down so I can get back to writing. Hopefully the result of all of this will be that I get to write what I want to write and not be constantly clawing at the door at the publishing industry. I hope that the momentum of all of this, the book, the movie, the sequel Iím writing, will allow me to publish whatever I want. That might not be the case but itís certainly what Iím hoping for.Ē
- Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle