'Z For Zachariah' Pre-Dates 'The Hunger Games'

In this era of storytelling, it seems like filmmakers have no shortage of tales to tell about the end of the world. Z For Zachariah stars Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor as survivors of a catastrophic event that — everyone together now! — wiped out most of civilization. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead is giving audiences another view of the zombie apocalypse that they've already been experiencing for five years now; and the final Hunger Games movie is set to bring the revolution straight to the Capital. You could call Z a character-driven version of the same-old story, but in fact, the movie's source material pre-dates most of the other post-apocalyptic media on the market, as Z For Zachariah is based on a novel (a sci-fi one, of course) that was published in 1974.

Author Robert Leslie Conly was a journalist who reported for publications like Newsweek and National Geographic. But he also wrote fantasy novels and children's stories as "Robert C. O'Brien." Among his successes was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which told the tale of a group of escaped laboratory animals who created their own modern society. My fellow '80s babies should remember its film adaption well. In 1982, an animated version called The Secret of NIMH was released; like any good kids' movie, it had some darkness to it. There's is reportedly a live-action and CGI remake in the works. I...I am reserving judgement.

O'Brien also penned two novels intended for adults. The first was released in 1972 and is titled A Report From Group 17. Though the protagonist is a 12-year-old girl, the themes that the book concerns itself with are heavy: fascism, chemical warfare, the role ethics plays in scientific advancement — you know, kid stuff. O'Brien was plagued by health problems throughout his life (he was 4-F status during World War II) and passed away from a heart attack in 1973. In addition to his wife and daughter, O'Brien left an unfinished novel behind: Z For Zachariah.

If Z For Zachariah had been completely faithful to the text in its adaptation, Margot Robbie would be playing a 16-year-old girl. (And Chris Pine wouldn't even be in it. Caleb is an added character. Score one for artistic license.) Again in this novel, the writer explores dead serious, life-or-death subject matter through the eyes of a character on the verge of adulthood. (Which is why Z is often stocked on Young Adult shelves, though O'Brien wrote it for an older audience.) Perhaps his literary focus on young women had to do with his own immediate family: wife Sally O'Brien and daughter Jane Conly, who was just 26 when her father died. It was Sally and Jane who used the notes that O'Brien left behind to wrap up Z For Zachariah. The science fiction genre is the richer for it, as is the canon of kick-butt young female characters. British novelist Sarah Hall was born the same year that Z For Zachariah was published and reflected on its meaning for her as both a teen and an adult in a piece for The Guardian:

Turning to the text again, I expected to find the prose, both in tone and content, over simplistic perhaps, designed for a juvenile audience. But, written in the form of Ann's diary entries, the novel is beautifully spare; neither childish nor adult in style, but pragmatic and direct, like the personality of its narrator. It is a tense, intimate portrayal of a girl in desperate circumstances, a bright farmer's daughter, of whom maturity is suddenly required.

The buzz on the Z For Zachariah film is largely positive and has been since its Sundance screening. But with the addition of a brand new character and the aging up of Robbie's character, the original text is changed dramatically. I'm looking at this as good news: there's a tense three-hander movie to see and a classic science fiction novel to read. Why not do both?

Images: Roadside Attractions; Giphy