Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies is a 2013 American romantic zombie comedy film written and directed by Jonathan Levine, and stars Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, and John Malkovich. The movie is based on Isaac Marion’s 2010 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. When the movie opens, the viewer learns there was a zombie apocalypse roughly eight years ago and the main character R (Nicholas Hoult), who is a zombie, spends his days wandering around a deserted airport with others of his kind. This includes his best friend M (Rob Corddry), who he is able to communicate with through grunts, moans, and rudimentary conversation. One day R and a group of other zombies go hunting for humans to eat and they encounter Julie (Teresa Palmer) and her group of friends, who are on a supply run for the human survivor group they live with. When R sees Julie for the first time his heart starts beating again and he is drawn to her. But when Julie’s boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) starts shooting, R kills him, and eats some of his brain, getting the boy’s memories of Julie and making the zombie more attracted to her. He takes the rest of Perry’s brian to eat for later, then goes to a scared Julie and puts some of his blood on her, so the other zombies will think she is dead, and takes her back to his home at the airport. R lives in an airplane by himself, which is where he takes a thoroughly freaked-out Julie, telling her he is going to keep her safe and that once the other zombies forget about her he will let her go. As he eats more of Perry’s brain, he learns about the relationship between the dead boy and Julie, which makes R start to fall in love with her. A few days later, Julie tries running away, having grown impatient waiting, and gets caught by several zombies that want to eat her, including M. R comes to save her and they try to escape together, not realizing the two of them have set in motion the end of the zombie apocalypse. In this blog post I will be looking at the world building and the mythology given to the zombies for this story, as well as the change in the ending between mediums.

In both the movie and Marion’s book, the first part of the zombie story is all world building and trying to set up what the world looks like. Unlike other zombie stories where the creatures are of very low intelligence and are only looking for their next meal, the zombies in Warm Bodies seem to keep their human intelligence. The problem for them comes from the fact that their bodies are technically dead, so they process their thoughts much more slowly and their actions take more time to happen. They can move quickly, but they need some sort of very strong motivation, which in most cases is the need to feed. For Marion’s zombie’s, they can eat any part of the human and get the same satisfaction from their hunger, but enjoy eating the brain the most because it allows them to see the memories of the person the brain belonged to. The act of eating the brain allows the zombies to almost dream and feel alive again; things they are unable to do since they don’t really sleep and lose the memories of their human life the longer they are zombies.

All this is shown pretty well in the movie, but for the book the first part of the story is even longer because Marion gives the zombies a culture and society in which they live and follow rules. There are two forms of the zombies: the Fleshies, which still look mostly like they did when they were alive, and the Boneys, which look more like deformed skeletons. The Boneys are the ones in charge of everything and keep all the other zombies in line, and have created a society which includes things like marriage, churches, and schools for the child zombies. None of these things are referenced in the film, with the only small example of this being a pair of zombie children seen around the airport, who readers of the book would recognize as the children given to R and his zombie wife by the Boneys. Instead, the movie makes the Boneys seem like they are lesser versions of the zombie race and a true explanation for why a Fleshie turns into a Boney is never given, though it’s mentioned that it will eventually happen after a person is a zombie for a while. When, in the book, it is shown happening to zombies who are both new and older, as it instead has to do with how much of their humanity they cling to after death. Once they lose their humanity and/or will to live like a human, they lose their skin and other tissues. This allows them to be faster and more dangerous than their Fleshie counterparts, who are still trying to be human even if they aren’t totally sure why. All this information is very important for the ending of the book, because Julie’s hardened military father, Grigio, ends up becoming a Boney right after he dies, instead of just being a regular Fleshie. Showing the fact that even though he was still alive, Grigio had given up on life and even as he was leading the living in the fight to end the zombies, he didn’t believe they would ever survive. But in the movie, Grigio ends up not being bitten by a zombie and lives, and he is forced to change his mind about zombies as well as the living humans he leads. 

Another aspect of the story that is never fully examined in the movie is the process of R becoming alive again. For the most part, the movie makes it simply about love and how much R loves Julie as being the sole reason he is able to become a living human. There is actually more to it, and a lot of the resurrection process comes from his brain starting to work more, which begins after he eats Perry’s brain. R starts having dreams about Perry’s life even after he is done eating his brain, which allows the zombie to feel human emotion again and reminds him how people are really supposed to interact with each other, something that he only had a vague concept of. With this R also develops a consciousness of sorts, which though he knew right and wrong, it didn’t matter to him since he couldn’t feel emotion. This consciousness is presented as Perry himself in R’s mind, as first a reproachful voice who makes R feel bad about himself and then a sort of friend guiding him to being alive again. In the movie, this is only seen happening once, in a dream R is having, instead of as a constant presence always there that makes R understand his rising emotions. These emotions, including but not limited to his love for Julie, are what allows him to access other parts of his humanity like control and decision making. So once his brain started working again fully, the other areas of his body followed.

In the Warm Bodies movie, it shows R’s heart start beating first and that is what starts his transition, and it is shown being the same for the other zombies like him; in the book though, this is never shown to be the case. Given that movies are a visual medium, this representation of the heart is used to allude to both life and R’s love for Julie, though it is rather basic and even cliched. I do like the movie for its campiness and romantic take on the zombie genre, but I prefer how the book looks into the emotions and moral struggles of the characters. Marion’s book also made the zombies and their world more unique and nuanced compared to other representations of zombies over the years, going beyond the monster horror aspect and giving it more depth. Don’t get me wrong, I think the movie is great and totally sells the “Romeo and Juliet” love story of it all, but for me it leaves too many aspects of the story unexplained or with one-dimensional answers. For my next blog I will be looking at the 2009 supernatural thriller, The Lovely Bones, directed by Peter Jackson and based on Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel of the same name. 

—Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s Bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.


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