Warm Bodies is Isaac Marion’s debut novel, and a film adaptation has just been released by Jonathan Levine. Both take the challenge of supernatural romance to its limit, presenting us with a hero without natural charm, attractiveness or romantic literary association: a zombie.
What makes the novel more unusual still is that the narrative comes from the perspective of the non-human protagonist. ‘I’m dead, but it’s not so bad… I’m sorry I can’t properly introduce myself, but I don’t have a name anymore… Mine might have started with an ‘R’, but that’s all I have now.’ At first, R’s internal monologue is relatively emotionless, but a sense of loss and pathos are present from the outset. The sensibilities presented subvert any prejudices the reader might have of the aggressive groans and deadened minds of the Dead.
The novel and film begin in the same way. Following some form of apocalypse, the Living hide within a few city strongholds and the Dead wander aimlessly or, like R and many others, congregate within an abandoned airport.
R’s hunting party fall upon a group of teenage salvagers. R kills a boy called Perry and, as he is eating his brain, he is filled not just with the life-force he needs to keep ‘living’, but with Perry’s memories. Within these are snippets of Julie, Perry’s girlfriend, who happens to be one of the salvagers. R absorbs the love the memory-Perry has for Julie and, recognising her huddled in a corner, fights his instinct to devour her. Coating her instead with a rich helping of his own blood, R disguises her enough to take her back to the airport, where he conceals her in the plane he has turned into a makeshift home. Through their interactions over the following days, Julie sees there is an underlying humanity trying to break out of his rotting shell. Conversely, R starts to feel more alive.
Despite his eloquent thoughts, what R is able to say is very limited. Conversation with Julie frustrates him, as he has to make do with the most basic expressions, mime and playing particular lines of LPs to get his meaning across. The result is some very touching scenes in which Marion plays the boundaries of the disturbing, sweet and surreal, without giving in to cliché. In fact, Julie calls R a ‘cornball’ for quoting Frank Sinatra, just to remind us not to take this romance stuff too seriously.
Alienation and non-communication are ongoing themes in the book. The film cleverly picks up on these in the opening scene, despite generally glossing over the novel’s brutality and seriousness. R’s opening voiceover asks, ‘Why can’t I connect?’ After a quick joke that ‘it’s because I’m dead’, he begins to muse. ‘It must have been so much better before, when everyone could express themselves, and communicate their feelings and just… enjoy each other’s company.’ The camera however pans back to how the airport was before the plague. No-one is talking to each other. Adults are texting or shouting into phones, teenagers listen to ipods and children walk about playing virtual games. The irony pulls the necessary punch.
I believe the story is partly a comment on how we currently live in the developed world. We are flooded with such an excess of media and ways of communicating through virtual means that we have almost stopped connecting on a personal level. Overwhelmed by information, choice and the onslaught of genuine horror in the news, perhaps we no longer have the psychological space left to empathise anymore, or to grow as people. Perhaps we are a kind of zombie race now, numbed by over-stimulation and relativisation. Perhaps R’s struggle to formulate thoughts into speech, his leaning on past musicians to speak for him, merely symbolises how much we communicate like the Dead. Vicariously, indirectly, untruthfully. I certainly feel there is a little part of me that R is speaking for. ‘There is a chasm between me and the world outside of me. A gap so wide my feelings can’t cross it. By the time my screams have reached the outside, they have dwindled into groans.’
This sense of self-loathing and condemnation rises as the novel continues. Halfway through R tricks his way into the compound where Julie lives. His observations of the scenery overlap almost musically with Perry’s ghostly voice in his head, describing how it ‘didn’t take too much to pull down the card house of civilisation… Good citizens realised the lines that had shaped their lives were imaginary and easily crossed.’
Near the novel’s end, Julie gives her theory for how the plague arrived. ‘I think we brought it here… I think we crushed ourselves down over the centuries. Buried ourselves under greed and hate and whatever other sins we could find until our souls finally hit the rock bottom of the universe… pulled our inner sickness out for everyone to see…’
If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that sometimes the characters’ voices and narrative seem to be in such harmony that they all seem to stem from the same consciousness. The memories of Perry, Julie’s speech and R’s thoughts all make similar statements about the state of the world, and with similar intonation. It adds to the sense of completeness in the novel’s vision, makes it feel almost dreamlike and hypnotic, but it also adds a slight repetitiveness; and literary purists might feel the characters were not fully individualised.
In general however, I felt the novel’s characters, particularly the leads, were well drawn. R’s transition from brain-eater to ‘human’ is fluctuating and filled with regressions. Julie is neither a passive damsel in distress or impenetrable battle-goddess, naive virgin or cynical whore. She feels real, particularly when R notices her unwashed hair and ‘comically mismatched underwear’. It is touches like this, and Marion’s descriptions of place that give the novel a sense of a unique consciousness and humanity that should stop it ever being seen as straight genre-fiction.
There are many allusions to Romeo & Juliet, most obviously in the names of Julie and her enigmatic ‘R’. Sometimes there are direct quotations, for instance when Julie defends R to friend Nora. ‘…isn’t “zombie” just a silly name we came up with for a state of being we don’t understand? What’s in a name, right?’ R overhears this outside Julie’s house, where he sees a balcony in front of her bedroom. Cue a classic soliloquy? ‘The balcony seems incongruously romantic on this austere structure, until I notice the swivel-mounted sniper rifles on each corner.’ These allusions are not used for cheap romantic points but to highlight how threatening and un-romantic this future is, how brave their reaching out to one-another. Marion subverts and brings the star-crossed lovers viscerally up-to-date.
In their second halves, the novel and film differ very much in pace and philosophical depth. Both work. The almost Disney-like conclusion to the film is great for a younger or more sensitive audience, and for the realists and cynics, who nonetheless would like some infusion of hope at the end, the novel suits very well. But to find out the details, you’ll just have to read and watch them yourself…