Z for Zachariah and Adaptation

First of all, let me thank you all for the stimulating discussions we’ve had this term in class. I’ve been gratified at the quality of discussions and the number of you who are regularly contributing to the discussion each class period. Driving home yesterday after our discussion of O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah and the 2015 film adaptation, I had some further thoughts that I thought I’d share.

O’Brien’s book begins with Ann Burden in a state of balance. She’s comfortable in the house, she has a supply of food that comes both from the local store and the small garden she’s been working. She entertains herself with books and playing music. Granted, the tractor no longer runs because of the lack of gasoline, but Ann seems to have found a state of equilibrium without the comforts of modern technology. When Loomis comes onto the scene, this equilibrium is broken, and the central story (and conflict) of the book is arguably all about the implications of this rupture and how Ann deals with it and what she learns from the experience. As we discussed in class, Loomis might represent a patriarchal authority being imposed on the valley, or simply the hierarchical power structure of the adult, or perhaps even the reintroduction of “advanced” knowledge and technology (note how he enables Ann to once again use the tractor by manually operating the pumps and brings in the cutting-edge suit that protects from radiation). Whatever he represents, he disrupts the balance with the natural environment that Ann has struck after her family left the valley.

In discussing the film adaptation, I noted that the introduction of Caleb, the young man not present in O’Brien’s book, could have been a ploy to develop a love triangle that’s been an oft-used trope in literature and film, especially young adult literature. Certainly the conflict that develops in the film between Caleb and Loomis for Ann’s affection (and, consequently, for the relative comfort and potential future that the valley can provide) brings a level of conflict that is not only more familiar to viewers but more palpable.

Internal conflicts are much harder to depict in film as opposed to in a novel, and O’Brien’s book is almost entirely about the internal conflict Ann feels about Loomis and the future he does (and then doesn’t) represent. The screenwriters’ decision to bring in a third character is partly about externalizing that conflict, making it more present. But, in thinking about it more yesterday, I also think it’s consistent with the spirit of O’Brien’s work. If Z for Zachariah is primarily about the upset that comes into Ann’s life, then the film is pretty consistent with the book. At one point in the film, it seems possible that Loomis and Ann will be able to be a couple and perhaps begin a future for humanity–it’s almost as if the balance Ann had worked so hard to build before Loomis appeared will be restored and, perhaps, even strengthened given Loomis’ scientific know-how. But once Caleb comes on the scene, that balance is ruptured again and becomes even more imperiled: Caleb’s appearance brings out troubling aspects of Loomis’ character (who has been portrayed as gentler and more appealing than he is in the book), but Caleb’s something of an unknown as well and we can’t be any more confident that he’d be a suitable match for Ann.

Two final thoughts about the adaptation. One, it’s significant that the showdown between Loomis and Caleb in the film comes in the context of building a water-wheel to bring electricity back into the valley (which is only alluded to as part of Loomis’ plans in the book). Here again we see the “invasion” of scientific knowledge into the natural balance of the valley, the same kind of knowledge that brought about the destruction that traps Ann in the valley and threatens her when she decides to leave. And, two, as I mentioned in class, I’m not sure what to make of the choice to cast Loomis as a different race from Ann and Caleb; is that to evoke historical stereotypes about race, or is it designed to make us more self-aware about how embedded those stereotypes can be when Loomis does turn out to be suspicious?

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