Last week, I had the opportunity to see an advanced screening of the movie Unbroken, which documents the events in the incredible life of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini. (This post will share spoilers–so consider yourself warned!) The movie documents Zamperini’s childhood delinquency, running career (including competing in Hitler’s Olympics in 1936), and service and in World War II (during which he was stranded at sea for weeks on end and imprisoned in Japanese prisoner of war camps).
The movie was inspired by Laura Hillenbrand’s epic biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. There aren’t many books I would describe as “perfect”, but Unbroken is certainly one of them. Hillenbrand’s masterful storytelling, character development, and historical backgrounds captivate readers and make them feel like they are in Zamperini’s shoes as his unbelievable story unfolds. I couldn’t put Unbroken down. When I was done reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about the amazing story for weeks.
Naturally, when I heard that Zamperini’s story would be turned into a movie, I was at first thrilled, but the thrill waned as I thought of what it might actually look like on the silver screen.
Whenever a book is turned to a movie, book-lovers will have a healthy-amount of skepticism toward the movie’s faithfulness to a book the love. For me, the faith-element of the film amplified my skepticism, for obvious reasons (just think of last year’s Noah movie). A movie by an unbeliever for unbelievers–even a story with Christian themes–should be recognized as such, and taken with a grain of salt.
As I thought about the movie, two main questions came to mind:
- Will the movie do justice to the book?
- How will the movie portray the faith journey of Zamperini?
1. Will the movie do justice to the book?
The answer to this question is no, as it usually is with a book-turned-movie, for two related reasons: time and medium.
- Time: The Unbroken book probably took me at least a dozen hours to read. The Unbroken movie was about two and a half hours. It is impossible to cram all of the interesting elements of Zamperini’s story into one movie of that length. (Not every book can be broken apart into three movies like The Hobbit.) The movie cannot go as in depth with characters, experiences, or history like the book does. It should be obvious, and in the end, the movie seemed to skim the surface of a miraculous story. If Angelina Jolie (the film’s director) had chosen to do two movies or a six-part miniseries on the life of Zamperini, then the brilliance of the book might have translated better to film.
- Medium: Reading a book is a very different experience from seeing a movie. Books draw you in and force you to create images in your head and often allow more reflection and interaction due to having gaps in between reading that allow readers to think. Movies do much of the imaginative work for you. This is one reason why book-lovers never seem to be fully satisfied with the movie versions of their favorite stories, and one reason why Unbroken the movie left me craving more. The Unbroken movie did not do justice to the book. It was never meant to.
2. How will the movie portray the faith journey of Zamperini?
While I don’t call Unbroken a “Christian book,” it is a book of interest to many Christians by showing the conversion story of an incredible man and how the grace of God in Christ allowed him to forgive even his most bitter enemies. So in that sense, the book had special significance for many Christians, including myself.
Before I saw the movie, I was skeptical that producers would use it just to sell tickets by catering to a crowd they know will pay, namely, Christians. Seeing the movie left me torn. (And here’s where the biggest spoilers begin…) I knew that the movie couldn’t do justice to Zamperini’s faith story, and would likely water it down.
Early in the movie, the thread of faith in a generic God begins as Louis flashes back to a childhood experience in church, where his priest says something like, “Jesus Christ saves sinners.” (A pleasant surprise.) Then, after Louis’ flight crew makes a crash landing during the war, Louis catches a crewmate praying, and tells him that his ‘mom prays sometimes.’ And perhaps the most crucial faith moment in the movie comes while Louis is stranded on a raft in the Pacific Ocean during a terrible storm. Louis cries out to God saying he will dedicate his life to Him if he helps him survive the storm. (A clip of this scene is of course shown in some versions of the trailer).
While there may have been a mention of Louis’ faith or of God later in the movie, they were not memorable for me. The movie ends soon after the war’s end, about 80% of the way through the book’s story. It fails to tell how Louis’ life back in the States started in glory–but then after marrying unraveled due to post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism that nearly cost him his marriage and his life.
The man who remained unbroken while being stranded at sea, facing the depths of human depravity by being beaten and tortured by the Japanese in a POW camp, became broken due to the depths of own sin and pain in his life. Failing to show this is possibly the film’s biggest failure.
What was not mentioned in the film was that during some of his darkest post-war moments, Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham crusade after his wife’s begging–and his life forever changed as he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ and put his faith in the Savior. The movie attempts to touch on this with a few short narrating sentences at the close of the movie, but much is lost. I can understand difficult choices Angelina Jolie would have had to make with this story due to time constraints and the natural ending that the war’s end provided, but am still disappointed nonetheless by only telling part of his story.
In spite of the movie’s flaws and omissions, I think that most people will enjoy Unbroken. Unbroken is an amazing story, told compellingly on the silver screen. I enjoyed crisp visuals, solid directing, and acting.
I would recommend this movie over most movies for two main reasons. 1) It’s entertaining. 2) There is much to be appreciated from Zamperini’s story, even without being thrilled how they portray the faith element. This movie teaches lessons on perseverance through suffering, human dignity, the evils of war, and also shares real examples of the depth of sin affecting humanity from a generation past.
This movie also can be a good conversation starter for Christians, which is often the best we can expect from a Hollywood movie targeted toward the faithful. I hope a lot of Christians see the movie (after reading the book or his autobiography of course 😉 ) and use Zamperini’s incredible story to have spiritually significant conversations with friends and family by asking questions like:
- Do you know what happened the years that followed in Zamperini’s life? (PTSD, alcoholism, abusing his spouse, faith in Christ, service to Christ, and forgiveness of all the men who mistreated him in the war.)
- What causes people to treat others like the way Zamperini was treated by ‘The Bird’ in Japan? Do you think God will judge the evil done to Louis by the Japanese in the POW camp?
- What would make you cry out to God for help like Zamperini did on the raft?
While I’m sure that the Christian reaction to the movie will be mixed like mine, I hope that God ultimately uses it to start many gospel conversations, cause many to ponder the existence and power of God, and bring saving faith to many.
Watch the Trailer