TV Preview: How James Patterson’s novel ‘Zoo’ became a series on CBS

No need to head to the multiplex for big action, special effects and hair-raising thrills, says bestselling author James Patterson, when the CBS adaptation of his novel, “Zoo,” promises all that — and rampaging wildlife, to boot.

“It should give the summer movies a run for their money,” said Patterson, a populist literary star perhaps best known for his Alex Cross franchise, less so for being understated. “There’s horror, sci-fi, suspense. It’s kind of James Patterson meets Stephen King meets Michael Crichton. It’s a scary fable.”

About 4 million fans have read “Zoo” since it was published in 2012 and topped the New York Times bestseller list. The story sets up a world in which animals of all stripe — from lions in Africa to domestic house pets in the U.S. — revolt against humanity. The series premieres June 30.


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Their attacks, seemingly random at first, become more coordinated and devastating over time, whether it’s newly liberated zoo animals preying on city dwellers or big cats and hyenas ambushing tourists on safari.

The reason for their tirade, which will become clear during the 13 hours of episodes, is the callous way that humans have treated them and the planet. Changes in the environment, in short, have caused changes in animal activity that went mostly unnoticed for years. But the violence explodes, almost like a flipped switch, and man had better duck and cover and solve the growing pandemic or else.

“The notion is, we’re next for extinction and maybe we deserve it,” Patterson said. “The animals are the heroes here, and they’re mad for the right reasons.”

But don’t expect a summer-long lecture about global warming, said executive producer and co-writer Jeff Pinkner (“Fringe”), who noted that “Zoo” will be “thought-provoking in a fun, not finger-wagging way.” So more popcorn flick and less “Inconvenient Truth.”

Nor are all the misbehaving animals behind bars or in research labs, skirting some ongoing controversies about animal treatment in captivity.

The show is the network’s newest summer event series, following “Extant” and “Under the Dome.” “Zoo,” which bypassed the pilot stage with a direct-to-series order from the gung-ho network, filmed in New Orleans. The Southern city and its environs stood in for international locations like France, Japan and the Kalahari Desert.

“It feels big in scope, even though we didn’t travel to those countries,” said James Wolk (“The Crazy Ones,” “Mad Men”), who stars as a behaviorist named Jackson Oz trying to warn the world about the impending animalpocalypse. “It’s globe-trotting and exciting, yet it’s really grounded with fully fleshed-out characters.”

Co-stars include Billy Burke (“Revolution”) and Kristen Connolly (“House of Cards”) in roles that don’t exist in the source material. Patterson, whose “Women’s Murder Club” books-to-TV-series lasted 13 episodes on ABC in 2008, said changes were necessary to translate “Zoo” from page to screen.

Bad news then for readers with an affinity for the memorable character Attila, a sweet young gorilla that turned homicidal and busted out of its Brooklyn walk-up to terrorize the populace. Better news for loyalists of the central power couple, scientist-types Oz and his love interest, Chloe Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder). They remain the heart and driving force of the story.

“Book fans will recognize it because the core premise is still there,” said Patterson, who worked closely with the writers and show runners but didn’t object to structural differences for TV. “That old saw about the movie never being as good as the book may be true when you try to cram everything into two hours. But there are 13 hours here, and that can make the TV version different and even better.”

Handing over creative control may seem strange since the prolific Patterson, who holds the Guinness World Record for the most bestsellers to hit No. 1 on the New York Times list and has 300 million-plus books in print, declared that “Zoo” was one of his favorite works.

“When I was writing it, I realized I hadn’t read anything like it before,” Patterson said. “It’s unpredictable.”

Wolk confessed to being somewhat creeped out by the premise, where even the beloved family pet becomes a snarling threat to everyone’s well being. “I think people may start to be paranoid of their dogs,” he said only half-kidding. That does not include, of course, his own shepherd-Rottweiler mix, who’s so sweet that she “can do no wrong.”

Similar to superhero blockbusters, “Zoo” will have loads of computer-generated images, though there were nearly 2,000 live animals on set over the course of the shoot, Pinkner said.

“There were rats, bats, elephants, bears, lions and wolves,” he said. “It’s always intimidating and fascinating to work with animals.”

Unlike some novels in the Patterson collection, “Zoo” is a one-off, though the book’s ending seems sequel ready. Patterson said he hasn’t made plans to write a follow-up or turn it into another of his long-running brands.

Whether it continues or not, CBS has already cashed in on the thriller’s initial season, selling it to Netflix for nearly $1 million an episode, proving its clout before the first ratings even register. It will be available on the streaming service shortly after its TV run, with CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves declaring it “immediately profitable for us.”

Pinkner described it as “a very energetic thrill ride,” with crossover potential like a good PG- or PG13-rated adventure. “It’s surprising and funny, and yet it may make us all think about the consequences of our actions.”