Laura Hillenbrand is a terrific storyteller. I loved “Seabiscuit,” and thought it remarkable how Hillenbrand was able to create a compelling and moving portrait of a superb, but complicated competitor who, because he was a horse, couldn’t speak for himself. When I recommend the book, I always make sure to emphasize that it’s a great book because Seabiscuit remains the protagonist.
I also enjoyed “Unbroken,” Hillenbrand’s narrative that centers around the early life and World War II experience of Louis Zamperini. Before reading “Unbroken,” I had never heard of Zamperini, a mischief-prone teenager during the Great Depression whose older brother steers him into track and field to try to keep him out of trouble. Louis discovers a transcendent talent for running, sets an interscholastic record for the mile, and a year out of high school, qualifies for the U.S. Olympic team that travels to Berlin in 1936. In the next few years, he seems to be on the verge of becoming one of the top milers in the world, but all that changes with the arrival of global war. Zamperini enlists and rises to the rank of second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. While flying a rescue mission, his plane experiences mechanical difficulties and he and his crew crash into the Pacific. Only three of the men survive the crash, and only two survive the ensuing 47 days at sea in a life raft with little food or water.
And that’s just the beginning of their story, a nightmare struggle to survive imprisonment and torture in the Japanese POW camps.
Now, Unbroken is being made into a movie, directed by Angelina Jolie (trailer here). On seeing this, naturally my first question was, “What will Kevin think of it?” I remember when the book came out that Kevin gave it lukewarm reviews. If I remember his verdict was that it had “too much war stuff, not enough running.” Unfortunately, I think there are three reasons he’s going to like the movie even less.
Reason #1 – Hillenbrand’s storytelling is not cinematic
I loved “Seabiscuit” the book, but I hated “Seabiscuit” the movie. The filmmakers never did figure out how to tell a story that developed gradually over more than twenty years. But that’s the way Hillenbrand writes; her narratives are slow-moving affairs that build gradually and that, in some fundamental sense, are about persevering over the long haul. The sheer improbability of any kind of triumph at the end, and the weight of long years of failures and misfortune, is what makes the eventual “happy endings” so compelling. Along the way, she takes her time, lingering over small things so that eventually you come to know the characters — their virtues and vices, their desires and disappoints — and feel a surprising intimacy with them. It’s hard to fit that kind of storytelling into a two-hour movie, or a three-hour movie for that matter.
Reason #2 – Running as a metaphor
If “Unbroken” were fiction, most editors would tell the author that having the hero be a world-class runner was an incongruous touch and a major distraction from the main story. So what are we to make of the fact that Louis Zamperini really was a world-class middle distance runner? Well, if you’re a runner, you might feel more keenly the loss, the waste of that prodigious talent, as so much talent was lost to the ravages of the war. If you’re NOT a runner, you might be more tempted to see Zamperini’s running talent as a metaphor for his struggle and survival. I’m fairly certain that’s what’s going to happen in the movie. It’s not a bad thing, exactly, but it’s almost impossible to avoid cliché.
Reason #3 – The Running Itself
How to say this without sounding arrogant? Even the best actors have a hard time portraying good runners on screen. No matter how skillfully directors stage distance races, they always end up looking like play-acting. I’ve written before about the scene in “Without Limits” where Lasse Viren wins the Olympic 5000m and Steve Prefontaine fades to fourth. The film uses live footage of the actual race, and intercuts it with a re-enactment, in which real-life Olympian Pat Porter plays Viren. Every time I see Porter/Viren he just looks like he’s so much better than everyone else on the track that I root for him instead of Billy Crudup as Prefontaine.
Well, I hope I’m wrong about all of this. I hope the movie is great, I really do. But somehow, I imagine that a few months from now, Kevin and I will be running on Battle Road, dissecting the movie after it comes out, and we’ll be shaking our heads. “Too much war, not enough running.”