I give full credit to my mother when she’s right: I should have picked up Laura Hillenbrand’s second biography Unbroken as soon as she told me I’d love it. But no, I waited years before I grabbed my dad’s copy over Christmas break and cracked it open.
I loved it.
Though I frequently fail, I try not to use that word lightly. As pages turned details over like fertile soil, I read with ever-increasing fascination. How could one person’s life be so rich? How could he so often intersect with famous people and events and yet be so singularly talented himself? With Japanese spies, handshakes with Hitler, and shark punching, (not to mention Hillenbrand’s engaging storytelling style) a thoroughly researched biography never felt more like a blockbuster movie.
Perhaps that’s why Angelina Jolie decided to produce and direct a film adaptation.
The film, while beautifully shot, smartly paced, and well-acted, is good. I promise, it’s good.
But ultimately underwhelming.
On paper, Jolie made a great choice. She picked a unique story with inherent drama and character, during a time period people enjoy learning about, and wanted to use a format that would complement its high-stakes, action-packed war story-turned-survival story about endurance, friendship and forgiveness. And while she and writers Ethan and Joel Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson left much of the book on the cutting room floor, what remains is true to Hillenbrand’s work.
Which, I repeat, will render you speechless with respect for human resilience and capacity for love and hate.
So if this isn’t a case of poor screenwriting, why would adaptation fail to measure up when it adhered so faithfully to its source? Perhaps that same fealty became the script’s downfall.
I think we need to look at the inherent implausibility of a story like Louis Zamperini’s. The guy grew up in a poor Italian immigrant family, became a top-tier high school track star in California, and eventually made it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. First of all, it’s a pretty big deal if you can say you were at one of the most famous Olympic Games ever. It’s an even bigger deal if you can say you hung out with Jesse Owens. And people may start to doubt you if you go on to tell them you had an eleventh hour burst of speed and clocked in the fastest final-lap time in the 5000-meter dash ever. Which got you a handshake and a “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish,” from infamous genocidal dictator Adolf Freaking Hitler.
I mean, holy crap what a story.
But it doesn’t end there!
After that adventure, you enlist in the United States Air Corps and are nearly shot down on several occasions. You continue to train for your future running career and achieve several unofficial records. Your plane finally crashes while you’re on a rescue mission, but you manage to survive for a record 47 days in an inflatable raft, battling sharks and the elements, all without food or water because your crewmate panic-ate all the emergency supplies. You’re then “rescued” by enemy forces and sent to a series of increasingly inhumane POW camps, where you become the favorite target of the prison commander, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, known for practicing judo on appendectomy patients.
And really, that’s an insanely simple summary.
All the little details in Hillenbrand’s work make Zamperini’s experiences into a spiritual endurance run and less of a brutal WWII thrill ride. Examples: the Japanese man pre-Olympics Zamperini befriended in California who later revealed himself as a spy. The Japanese athletes he associated with while in Berlin. The fact that the 1940 Olympics, at which Zamperini intended to compete, were supposed to be in Tokyo, Japan. Zamperini’s eventual arrival in Japanese territory becomes more tragic, given Zamperini’s past connections with the nation currently tormenting him. Small tidbits about his family endear the reader to them and make every terrible minute Zamperini spends missing them unbearable. Mentions of Zamperini’s signature ability to endure peppered throughout the narrative come to fruition at the climactic scene when the Bird forces a starving, beaten Zamperini to lift a wooden beam in the air.
For every crazy thing Zamperini was involved in, Hillenbrand provided her sourecs. How did he know how to fend off raft-eating sharks? He’d taken lessons while stationed in Hawaii on how to properly punch a shark in the nose. How did the Bird become so psychotic? Hillenbrand provides all the facts she could dig up on his family and military history.
To sum up, what does all this mean? Two things: Firstly, that a story so dependent on details for tone and drama cannot be reproduced in two hours and seventeen minutes. Without those details, it simply feels like something we’ve heard before. Even when basic events are of great interest, sometimes audiences need specifics to ground a story’s effect.
Secondly, that a story so filled with unlikely events won’t feel realistic when told in a medium known for exaggerating the truth for sake of drama. The Bird’s character proves this in point: although he’s no different a character in the film, he doesn’t feel like a human being. He’s no different than a Marvel villain who, I don’t know, kind of just likes being mean?
One of the most powerful scenes in the book loses its impact due to this lack of detail.
The Bird is a simple, screaming caricature. Our hero glares at him defiantly while his fellow downtrodden, encouraged, watch admiringly. A cartoon.
But again, this is the same as the book.
As a viewer, it’s easier to detach yourself from cruelty that doesn’t feel real. Even knowing the film is based on a true story, those unfamiliar with Hillenbrand’s heavily researched and footnoted work will likely write off unlikely scenarios as the film industry’s embellishments. Argo‘s plane escape was far less heart-pounding in real life. The tension between Apollo 13’s Fred Haise and Jack Swigert never existed. Perhaps audiences now simply take dramatic events in historical movies with a grain of salt. Then, when genuine drama occurs, audiences are more likely to be suspicious.
Combine an unprecedented amount of amazing events in one guy’s life with purely good good guys and purely bad bad guys and then use a storytelling technique that also produced Star Wars and you’ll understand why 2014’s Unbroken didn’t get the same reception as its print counterpart.
Even when it was written and produced with all the love and respect an adaptation could ask for.