Biography “Versus” Film Adaptation

The film adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken released on Christmas Day in 2014 and became an immediate success. Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken has grossed over $100 million and was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Jolie stuck fairly closely to Hillenbrand’s biography of Louie Zamperini. The greatest challenge for Jolie in making the film adaptation was the sheer breadth of Louie’s story as related in Hillenbrand’s biography. Compressing a 400-plus page book into a 137-minute movie means some things must be left out, but Jolie wanted her film to include almost every stage of Louie’s life, his religious transformation excepted, meaning most of his story is featured in “highlight reel” fashion instead of any individual part being portrayed in depth.

Jolie’s Part I depicts an overview of Louie’s juvenile delinquency with very little of the specifics found in Hillenbrand’s book. Likewise, Louie’s track career and time at USC are presented mostly in montage and quick flashes. Jimmie Sasaki, Louie’s college friend and undercover spy, is eliminated completely from the film.

In the film’s Part II, Louie’s career as an Army Air Corps bombardier is also abbreviated. An action sequence of the bombing of Nauru and subsequent near-crash landing is the extent of that bombing run. Louie’s crash into the ocean is also dealt with only briefly, but key parts of that story, including when Louie is trapped underwater by wires, are shown.

Jolie’s Part III, concerning Louie, Phil, and Mac’s ordeal at sea, presents some minor elements of the story out of sequence. Many events in this portion of the story are, out of necessity, presented with rapid speed, making survival at sea seem almost easy. What was, in reality, a treacherous six weeks, goes by so quickly that the castaways seem barely phased by their experience. Additionally, Jolie downplays one key moment in Louie’s life here: In Hillenbrand’s account, when Mac asks Louie if he is going to die, Louie tells Mac that yes, he thinks Mac will die that night. Louie tells Mac the truth, thinking that Mac might have something that he needs to say before he dies. In Jolie’s version, Louie hedges his bets on Mac’s dying and tells Mac, “Maybe,” instead of “Yes.”

The bulk of Jolie’s film (about 70 minutes) is spent on Part IV, at the Omori POW camp, which Jolie merges with elements of the other camps. The Bird is omnipresent here, to the exclusion of other sadistic guards mentioned in the book, such as The Quack. The plots to escape and to kill The Bird are likewise eliminated. To add dramatic flair to the POWs’ liberation at the war’s end, the film fabricates a scene where the “kill-all” order is in progress—and then is miraculously halted by American planes coincidentally flying overhead at just the right moment.

The final 60-plus pages of Hillenbrand’s book, including Louie’s homecoming, marriage, and postwar life, are barely touched on in the movie. Louie’s faith transformation and subsequent life-changing forgiveness of his captors are treated only as a textual postscript. Jolie’s Unbroken ends triumphantly, though, with a video of the real Zamperini, at age 80, carrying the Olympic Torch before the 1998 Olympics in Japan.

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