Blogger’s Note: There are both book and movie spoilers below. You have been warned.

We finally saw Unbroken last week. The book version of the story — Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography of Olympic athlete and WWII veteran Louis Zamperini — is a spell-binding, white-knuckled page-turner. It’s well researched, lovingly crafted, and unflinching in its portrayal of the danger and brutality endured by Zamperini and his comrades during 47 days adrift in a life raft after their plane crashes into the Pacific and two and a half years in Japanese prison camps.

I know many people now, men and women alike, who have read this book, and every single one has loved it. When I finished it, I told Jodi this man had four or five movies worth of material happen to him in his lifetime, and I blogged that “the fact that all of them really happened to one man is almost too much to be believed.

Zamperini died just this past summer at age 97. When I heard the news on the radio, I choked up. What an amazing man.

Perhaps it was too much to expect a single film could carry the weight of Zamperini’s story alone. I liked it well enough, I suppose, primarily because it reminded me of the book — but unlike the book, it had no lasting impact for me. I’ve heard both critics and friends offer two reasons for this (Note: Spoiler alert!):

  • Some have said that it’s overly sanitized — that a PG-13 version of an R-rated book simply can’t convey the horrors experienced by Japan’s POWs. Some have suggested that it’s a “Golden Age of Hollywood” sort of movie, well done but too beautiful, without the real grit we’ve come to expect in newer war movies.
  • Others blame director Angelina Jolie for leaving out the book’s final act, which showed both the dreadful toll Zamperini’s years in captivity took on his mental and emotional health, and the path to forgiveness and healing he found in Jesus Christ.
Although I remain disappointed with the pat ending, which relegates Zamperini’s conversion story and personal forgiveness of his captors to an end note, I’m closer in opinion to the “overly sanitized” argument. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that teens may get the chance to see this movie and learn about the man — and the violence is plenty real. What’s missing, from my perspective, is the moment-to-moment tension and suspense of the book: the arbitrary, madness-inducing, constant fear of violence and death that make Zamperini’s survival and redemption so incredible and uplifting. 

For example, in the film, when Louie and his two companions are adrift on the Pacific, they are hungry, thirsty, sunburnt, circled and attacked by sharks, and strafed by Japanese warplanes, just like in the book…except that in the book, these dangers weighed on the men constantly. While the movie plays up a single shark attack for a scare moment, the book portrays the sharks as an ever-present fear, constantly testing the integrity of the raft and the resolve of the men. In the book, the rubber life raft is shot full of holes more than once, and pumping and patching to stay afloat and alive is steady work. In the book, faced with malnutrition, disease, parasites, and torture, the POWs are constantly struggling to stay healthy enough to endure daily hard labor — and the “victories” that Louie wins over his antagonizer, the Bird, are moral victories only, and fleeting. He wakes the next morning with new injuries and new challenges, still malnourished and still under the Bird’s oppressive thumb.
Of course, great books are rarely matched by the films based on them — but if a magical, whimsical book like The Hobbit can be expanded into three dark and swarming action movies of three hours a piece, perhaps we could have given a little more time to Zamperini. The TV miniseries (think Roots or Lonesome Dove) seems to be a fading form — perhaps that would have been a better choice for Unbroken?

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