by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
For Isaac Marion, talking about his bestselling book Warm Bodies isn't 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, and sitting down at a local hotel to speak with a seemingly never-ending series of journalists picking his brain about both book and movie is not something he could have anticipated growing up.
'It's very surreal,' he says with a shy chuckle. 'It's not just that it's exciting and fun, but it's also kind of a weird 'in-between' between terrifying and exciting. It's dreamlike. The whole process is pretty hard to wrap my head around. It's 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.'
The story of Warm Bodies concerns itself with a zombie named R (played in the film by Nicholas Hoult) - so-called because his undead brain can't quite recall his real name - 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 her 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.
It's an unusual premise to say the least, and one Marion was never sure he could pull off within the confines of a novel. 'The short story I originally started out with was a departure from the stuff I normally write,' explains the author. 'It 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 that's what made me think I should explore it a little more.
'As I was writing the novel, I never thought that I'd be writing a zombie novel - it wasn't really a genre I was familiar with other than the typical mythology - let alone that it would end up becoming what it has. [Warm Bodies] is literally defining my entire life. Zombies. This book. This movie. It's been an adjustment period coming to terms with how unlikely the direction my life and my work has taken.'
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 wasn't 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.
'It was never that I loved zombies,' laughs Marion. 'That's 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 absorbing it out of the pop-culture atmosphere and used it to do very different things than it is usually used for. I wanted to turn it inside out. Look at the clichés and apply them as metaphors for various things. It wasn't that 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 didn't 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.'
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. 'One 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 I'd written,' he says sincerely.
'In a way, it helped fuel major changes in my own life in regards to my own worldview 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 that's exactly what happened.'
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 couldn't have been easy. Or could it?
'It's not hard whether or not to decide to do it,' says Marion. 'I hate to use the term 'no-brainer' because it sounds like a terrible pun but, really, that's exactly what it was. It wasn't like I was hesitating as to whether not to let [Warm Bodies] go, it didn't 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 [Hollywood] would follow through and make the movie. When Jonathan came aboard, suddenly I felt a lot more comfortable.'
'It was scarier at the very beginning after I had sold [the book] but didn't 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 back room 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, it's amazing some of the directions they go. But thankfully that's not what happened. The movie is much better than it could have been. It's something I can be proud of. That's a huge relief.'
The initial pangs of that relief happened when Marion met with Levine. Fresh off making The Wackness and in the midst 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 book's author immediately responded to.
'When I first met with Jonathan he was talking about other apocalyptic films that he was thinking of that might influence this one,' he recalls. 'We talked about Children of Men. We talked about Danny Boyle. We talked about other, non-apocalyptic films, some of my favorite stuff like Charlie Kaufman's work, specifically Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is funny and weird but isn't 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 wasn't going to transform my story into some sort of travesty.'
Even with the trust building up between the two men, it's still difficult to see one's 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 they are in the novel. Gone is the zombie's signature red tie, replaced by a blood-red hoodie. As for the ending? It's different, too, Levine going in a bit more distinct a direction that the somewhat ethereal, nondescript coda offered up within the book.
'I'm not the kind of author that screams, 'Follow my vision!' he says with a smile. 'I'm not a director or anything but I've seen enough movies to understand you can't follow a book to the 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. They're not going to understand why every line of dialogue from the book isn't in this hour-and-a-half movie.
'Of course, that's not possible. You can't 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, then the ending I may have imagined no longer makes sense or it doesn't flow emotionally in quite the same way. I understand that process, so I wasn't breathing down [Jonathan's] neck the whole time about choices and decisions he made in regards to changes. Don't get me wrong - there were times I wasn't 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.'
Yet those fans can be extremely vocal, yelling from the rooftops when their favorite moment or what they feel is a signature sequence of their treasured novel isn't redone to their specific expectations. For them, the author has a somewhat novel way of trying to put things into perspective.
'Some people look at adaptations as visual transcriptions of a novel,' explains Marion. 'To me, I look at it more like a cover song. It's a new artist creating their own spin on an original work. You don't listen to a cover song and think, 'That's 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 artist to do the original justice, yet make the song their own. That's how I feel about adaptations.'
'I 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 don't want to be like, 'You're an idiot. Figure out how films work. Stop complaining.' That would be insane on my part. But I do know how films work, so I don't 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 - or dissimilar - it is to the book.'
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. 'I am working on a sequel to Warm Bodies,' he confirms, 'but when it's finished that will be my last statement as far as zombies are concerned. I do have to remind myself as I'm writing to not picture Teresa Palmer with long blonde hair or Nicholas Hoult with a red tie instead of a red hoodie, but that's a small problem. The greater one is coming up with a story and a narrative that people feel moves the story forward and doesn't just rehash what I've already done before. I spend a lot of time thinking about the book. It's pretty ingrained in there.'
With all the buzz surrounding the film version of Warm Bodies, the author can't help become overjoyed when he thinks about where his life has ended up. At the same time, he almost just as equally can't wait for a return to some form of quiet normalcy. 'It's an exciting time,' says Marion with a grin. 'It's almost too exciting. It's a little overwhelming. It's been a long time since I've been able to go about my daily routine and step into a Seattle coffee shop and write.
'It's really exciting, yes, but I'm 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 of the publishing industry. I hope that the momentum of all of this - the book, the movie, the sequel I'm writing - will allow me to publish whatever I want. That might not be the case but it's certainly what I'm hoping for.'
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