Blogging from A-Z – ‘Unbroken’: the book vs. the movie

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “U.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)


UnbrokenQuoteI’m so glad I decided to read Unbroken before I saw the movie. I’m also happy that I didn’t finish reading the book before the movie left town. (The book is pretty long; then again, so is the movie.)

Now that I’ve read writing coach Kristen Lamb’s deconstruction of the story, the desire to see the movie has left me. It must have been eaten by sharks much like the ones Louie and Phil managed to evade for 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific after their plane was shot down.

Laura Hillenbrand’s reputation as a storyteller (Seabiscuit) had made reading the book especially appealing. And, by all accounts, her book Unbroken is far superior to what it was turned into for Hollywood. I agree with everyone who sings the book’s praises. Hillenbrand is a superb storyteller.

Unbroken_coverBefore I downloaded it to Kindle, I thought Unbroken was about Louis Zamperini’s running career. He was an Olympic runner (5,000 meters) in 1936 whom I had read about in Runner’s World magazine before I knew about the book or the movie. I suppose the book’s subtitle, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, should have clued me in. (Read an excerpt of the book here.)

But I was concurrently listening to The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which I reviewed here on April 2. That book was, indeed, about the University of Washington rowing team and not so much about WWII. So maybe I was just hopeful.

Louie’s Olympic feats were featured, to be sure, but they were a minor part of Unbroken.

Our critic acknowledged that the book could have been turned into an excellent movie but made key errors that left viewers in the dark about certain motivations:

  • Why did Louie turn from being a thug and a thief in his youth into an Olympic runner?

In short: Athletics saved him. The book goes into detail about how Louie tried to reform, couldn’t, got in trouble with the high school principal and was allowed to participate in school sports. (Louie’s brother, Pete, had to charm the principal into giving Louie the opportunity. Pete may have saved Louie’s life.) We learn later in the book that Japanese officials kept Louie alive for leverage because he was a famous Olympian. So, not only did running save Louie as a teenager, it ultimately saved him from being executed as a prisoner of war. It seems that God had a plan for Louie.

  • The script lacked the dramatic tension that would cause Louie’s story to arc (change).

“He’s always the one who remains calm, the one who is levelheaded, the one who does the right thing. He takes the beatings while in captivity and presses on to stay alive. He is the same when the plane crashes as the day when he walks out of the POW camp. … We get a sense that Zamperini was already a ‘hero’ before his plane was ever shot down.”

This is where the book reader has the advantage: Louie did not always remain calm. Hillenbrand has him clenching his fists in silent defiance when he’s beaten by the sadistic Japanese corporal who has a special hatred for Louie and singles him out for arbitrary punishment multiple times a day. Louie and the other POWs take risks they might not have taken under less critical circumstances. Their freedom and their dignity are at stake.

You get inside the prisoners’ heads just a little when the author details how they sabotaged goods they were assigned to ship while on work detail. How they filled socks with contraband sugar to take back to the barracks. How they urinated on the bags of rice destined to ship out. How they stole tobacco, fish and wine and smuggled the goods back to the other prisoners.

Here’s how Lamb sums up the movie’s main flaws:

“In order to make a story into a movie (even TRUE events), it must be dramatized, meaning put into three-act structure. The biography did well (I assume) because the real story was actually Zamperini’s journey of FAITH. The crash and then time as a POW developed his trust in GOD and not himself. He survived, dedicated his life to God and then later returned and made peace with his tormentors. Forgiveness was how he triumphed, not just in taking beating after beating. He traveled to Japan and forgave them. But this is reduced to an afterthought in the film.

Those weren’t the only flaws that Lamb pointed out, but some of them aren’t relevant comparisons to the book. (Too many flashbacks, for instance: “often a sign of weak writing.” Showing Louie being starved and beaten for two hours is easier than writing a better script, she said.)

Commander Worf of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'
Lt. Cmdr. Worf of the USS Enterprise. He’s a Klingon.

She thought the movie would have made a good documentary, or perhaps be helped by the addition of Klingons.

“I see other reviewers also saying it wasn’t done justice, no character development, no emotion, etc. I personally find the story dramatic, but perhaps the movie structure killed it. It’s a shame. I think there was a story there to tell.”

Lamb complained about the three-hour length, specifically mentioning nearly two hours of Louie being beaten and an hour of unnecessary flashbacks. She didn’t mention the ongoing detail of Louie and Phil’s nearly seven weeks on the raft. I kept wanting them to just get off the darned raft. And then I wanted them to just get out of the darned POW camp. If I, the book reader, had those thoughts, how much more would I have been thinking them if I had been stuck in a movie theater, needing to pee, and watching two men stranded for weeks on open water? 🙂

In my comment on Lamb’s blog, I thanked her for sparing me the three hours of torture (mine, not Louie’s).

I’m fairly certain that lots of people who didn’t read the book have enjoyed the movie and had no conscious thought about any of the critical elements Lamb mentioned. But she teaches writing, and this was a situation where she turned lemons (watching a three-hour movie she considered extremely boring) into lemonade (a writing lesson).

You may agree or disagree, but I consider myself $8 to $10 richer because I’ve skipped the movie. Thank you again, Kristen.

I forgive novice director Angelina Jolie for taking a great book and making an inferior movie out of it. After all, forgiveness is one of the main themes of Unbroken.

Have you read the book? Seen the movie? Read Lamb’s full critique here (same link as above), and give me your thoughts – good, bad or somewhere in between.

UPDATE: On Thursday, April 30, I updated my “review” by talking more about Louie and the book’s author, Laura Hillenbrand. Read about it here.


Saturday: V is for (help me out – what starts with V?).

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