Thursday, December 4, 2014
Last night THC and the Mrs attended a pre-release screening at Yale of Unbroken, a new movie directed by Angelina Jolie which will have its premiere on Christmas Day. THC was a huge fan of Unbroken and of Laura Hillenbrand's previous book Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand is not a great writer but she is a gifted story teller and in the saga of the improbable comeback of a broken down race horse and the tale of a famous, but today forgotten, young athlete and his journey of survival, struggle and redemption she found wonderful stories to tell.
[A caveat on the comments below; it has been reported that the movie studio is re-editing the film so THC cannot confirm that what we saw is the version that will be released]
Though we went to the screening with great expectations we left disappointed. The movie looks great but the storytelling choices made by the director and screenwriters, who include the Coen brothers, drained the power from Zamperini's story as told in the book. In Hillenbrand's book, the journey of Louis Zamperini is one of immense suffering and survival followed by redemption and forgiveness. The movie portrays the suffering and survival in excruciating and agonizing detail (Zamperini survived 47 days drifting in the Pacific after his B-24 bomber crashed and then two years of beatings and torture in Japanese POW camps during WWII) but skimps on the redemption part of the story by ending the film at a point well before the book does. That painstaking and painful detail works well in the book but in the film it is just too much, particularly when not balanced with the other major themes that Hillenbrand draws from Zamperini's life story. Admittedly THC thought that Unbroken would be difficult to adapt to the screen but the filmmakers resolved those difficulties in a way that left us feeling flat at the movie's conclusion because by merely telling us of his redemption through serving God rather than showing us they surrendered the greatest asset of film making which is its ability to emotionally connect with the audience through the power of showing us.
Along with truncating the post-war part of Zamperelli's story it also simplifies his pre-war life when he was America's best long-distance runner and more importantly only shows flashes of his personality which is an important element in Hillenbrand's book. None of these comments are meant to detract from Angelina Jolie's intentions in making the movie and it is clear from looking at the background to the making of the movie that she loved and admired Louis Zamperini. Making a movie from a non-fiction book is difficult and often much is lost in the translation. For a model of how to do it well see Peter Weir's adaption of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels in Master And Commander.
It may also be that the post-war recovery and transformation of Zamperini (who died earlier this year at the age of 97) is just too difficult for Hollywood to handle today since his transformative experience came about through attending the Billy Graham crusade but for whatever reason the way the film ends up as a compelling, but long and grueling, story of survival and perserverance but without the striking inspirational and spiritual aspects which Hillenbrand told so well.