I remember lying on the sand sprinkled couch with a book held above my face, turning page after page. The pearly sands of the North Carolina beach were calling me, but the white pages seemed more important at the time. Someone had brought the book on vacation, and I grabbed it, possibly out of lack of preparation on my part for an effective time consumer.
Although our small beach house was full with people, the noise didn’t seem to bother me, a trait I must have picked up from my father. I was in my last year of high-school and this could be our final family vacation all-together (as my father continually promised and is still promising). But I could not pull myself away from the book, and every chance I got, I would jump onto the couch and continue the story of this incredible horse.
The book I could not put down was Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand.
Neither horses or her name were familiar to me. Although I was currently living in Kentucky, we had transplanted there, so the “horse thing” was not really a part of our family as much as the “book thing.” Laura Hillenbrand was not yet a household name either, although her book had been out a little over a year. The book must have been recommended by someone else to end up in our family’s possession.
Although my memory is notoriously poor, I do remember the book being unique because of the writing of Hillenbrand.
Her story was her story, and she dissolved into the background. The writing was as smooth as a stream of butter, with no rocks or jolts that made me spring out of the narrative. The book’s reputation was unfortunately tainted by the 2003 movie starring Tobey Maguire which did not receive high ratings.
Another American Legend
Unbroken is the second book of Hillenbrand, published in 2010. After the incredible journey Hillenbrand took me on with Seabiscuit, I immediately picked up Unbroken when it was published.
Although this time I was not on the beach of North Carolina, it had the same effect on me, but this was even a greater story.
Last night, I went to see the movie, based on the book made by Angelina Jolie. I followed a lot of the rumors and news about the movie, so when I walked in I knew what I was getting myself into. I also knew that it was going to be impossible for this movie to live up to the book. My expectations were tempered, but I still wanted to see the film.
And what Jolie made was not all bad, although it was not all that good either. That is what will be the problem for those who read the book, they really want this movie to be exceptional, and it is not.
So what is wrong with the movie? Is there something wrong with the movie? Would the movie have been fixed if she included Zamperini’s conversion at the end? Would it have been that much of a better movie? Would it have made it an excellent film?
These are all distinct questions, but I would like to try to answer them.
Two major flaws stick out to me, one more prominent than the other.
First, “The Bird,” as one NPR analyst said, just doesn’t work. And Jolie really needs “the bird” to work in a full sense to capture the heart of this book. Jolie appropriated the eccentric nature of this man, but the strange (for lack of a better term) metro-sexual aura seemed out of place. Do I know what “The Bird” was like? No, not exactly, but when I read the book there was this conglomeration of feelings toward this man: hate, confusion, fear, rage, disorientation, and fury. Jolie’s character only communicated disorientation and stunted an essential part of the book.
Second, and probably more confusing for most of the readers of this blog, my main complaint with the movie was that it was too preachy. That is probably the last thing Jolie expected from an evangelical Christian.
Seabiscuit and Unbroken were both great stories. But as I mentioned above, Hillenbrand’s greatest strength is that she dwindles in the background. And if one hears this as me saying she is not a great writer, I am affirming the opposite. The hardest thing to do as a writer is to disappear, and let the story work its way into the marrow of the reader. She works really hard to get out of the way, and she does.
Zamperini’s story was so incredible, it did not need a “message” supporting it.
The movie doesn’t let the narrative tell the story, or at least not enough. Very early on in the movie the viewer keeps getting hit (literally) in the face with the theme of endurance and stamina. It is as if Jolie thinks her viewers won’t get it unless we see it a million times.
Zamperini gets in a fight as a kid and stands up against four. He has a few heart to hearts with his brother where his brother says “If you can take it, you can make it,” which is repeated throughout the film. Then one sees him endure in multiple races and everyone knows what is coming.
I don’t recall Hillenbrand doing something like this, at least as explicitly. Certainly, there was a streak in Zamperini, even early in his life, that he had endurance and grit. But the great thing about Hillenbrand is that she let you figure that out through the narrative without shouting it in your ear over and over again. The story did all the hard work.
Many times the most effective messages are the understated ones, and this one becomes too preachy. Countless messages were contained within the book, and each reader was hit with different aspects of it. It was a one-note film, but a multifaceted book.
With these flaws, I am not sure the story would have been “fixed” with the ending that was in the book. For this would have come off as too preachy too. Having said that, the movie would have included more variety and really fit the narrative arc of the book if it portrayed the way forgiveness found Louie. The movie comes across as one big torture scene and some viewers might walk out feeling “If I can take it, I can make it to the end.”
Of course, Hillenbrand’s book is excruciating to read in many places, and a large portion of it concerns Zamperini’s POW experience. Yet the bookends to the narrative do something special which I can’t quite put my finger on.
If I had to guess, it lets us know more of the man than simply his “unbrokenness.” It lets us see his flaws, his humanity, and in this way we begin to relate to him. He does not just have a jar full of will-power, but he has flaws and scars that show up even after he is gone from the hell of war.
Average Movie, Unforgettable Book
Like I said, the movie is not terrible, but it is forgettable.
The book is unforgettable.
So for those who read it, they will come out disappointed. Others will think it was okay, but the readers of the book will not be satisfied with an “it was okay.”
Possibly it will make a few more people want to read the book and start some conversations about the differences between Hillenbrand’s and Jolie’s portrayal of Louie Zamperini.