Before You See ‘Z for Zachariah,’ Revisit the Dark, Creepy YA Novel It’s Based On

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Critics, including our own Jason Bailey, are praising this weekend’s forthcoming release, Z for Zachariah, a creepy dystopian film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine, Margot Robbie, and directed by Craig Zobel. I’m particularly excited to hear the title bandied about, as I may be part of a select group who hears it and immediately recalls a beloved YA book of the same name. It was reviewed with near-universal praise in 1975 — during an era when its fictional exploration of a planet nearly blotted out by nuclear fallout must have seemed all too relevant. Today, in our moment of global warming-wrought wildfires, drought, and flooding, the urgency of its themes persists.

When I was growing up in the 1990s, my family members and I passed around a bright blue paperback copy of the original novel by Robert C. O’Brien, who also wrote the beloved (and lovely) children’s series about the rats of NIMH. It was an early example of the kind of YA book that would become trendy in the 21st century — addictive, suspenseful, and full of ruminations about human nature, power, suspicion, and cooperation. I don’t remember who read it first, but I know my parents liked it as much as my brother and I did, in much the same way that today’s hip titles get passed between teens and their parents.

Unlike the film (and most current YA novels), Z for Zachariah has no love triangle. Instead, it consists of an uneasy seesawing of power between two characters. It reads like The Road was combined with a protagonist who prefigures Katniss from The Hunger Games and themes from Margaret Atwood. Ann, a teenage girl who thinks she’s the sole survivor of a nuclear apocalypse, remains sheltered in her valley with a freak weather system that has largely been bypassed by the destruction. Living alone, she is a peaceful gardener type, tending to her own plot and wondering what happened to the rest of humanity. Then, one day, an older scientist named Loomis in a “safe suit” comes into the valley, and the ensuing tension renders the book both unputdownable and unbearable.

Loomis bathes in a polluted river while Ann watches, too scared to warn him, but when he becomes sick, she tends to him through his delirium, fantasizing about the life they might have together — until he unwittingly reveals nasty facts about his past, setting the stage for their conflict.

As Loomis gains strength and consciousness, he reveals his potential to help Ann survive and even thrive, but also becomes an implicit threat to her autonomy and safety. She reads classic literature and plays piano for him, and they eye each other warily as potential mates (there’s even a fan site devoted to unpacking the literary references). Without the third character logically introduced by the film, the book remains even quieter, yet the menace lingers. How much of it exists only in Ann’s mind, and how much is endemic to the persona of Loomis? The book’s ending is by necessity different, too, mixing hope and bleakness in a way that only the bravest such novels do.

While Z for Zachariah contains plenty of violence, implied and actual, it’s nowhere near as extensive as what you find in series like The Hunger Games, Divergent or any of their many imitators. Instead, a single leg wound, and the constant threat of being poisoned in a world corroded by nuclear fallout, as well as the implied presence of sexual violence in a new world with only one man and one woman, make the book feel like a more believable dystopia than others might. Biblical symbolism threads throughout the narrative, but rather than being didactic, it’s a vehicle for tense interpersonal drama.

For fans of the genre, it’s worth digging up a copy (it looks like there’s now a movie tie-in) this weekend, as the movie arrives in theaters. The adaptation offers us a rare chance to re-explore one of those books that have timeless qualities, but somehow fail to rise to “classic” status.