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Unbroken Adaptation Works but Waters Down Redemption

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2014 23 Dec
  • COMMENTS
<i>Unbroken</i> Adaptation Works but Waters Down Redemption

DVD Release Date: March 24, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2014
Rating: PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 137 min.
Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleason, Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller Unbroken is how the author captured the Christian conversion of Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini. Hillenbrand depicts Zamperini’s promise to dedicate his life to God while floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean, his downward slide into an alcoholic-fueled post-captivity life, and the perseverance of Zamperini’s faithful Christian wife, who convinces her husband, at last, to attend Billy Graham crusade. It's there that Zamperini surrenders his life to Christ and commits to following through on his earlier promise to serve God all his days—and then extends forgiveness to his Japanese captors.

The book is a rare pop-culture phenomenon that describes the contours of Christian commitment in a way that honors a life of belief and faithful service.

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The film adaptation of Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, is an effective recreation and evocation of the Hillenbrand novel—up to a point. But it stops just short of where the book becomes most interesting, boiling down Zamperini's post-captivity life to a couple of title cards in the film's closing moments. That choice will be a bitter disappointment to many Christian fans of the book, yet it's hard to find major fault with what Jolie and the screenwriters have retained from Hillenbrand’s book. The film is an effective adaptation as far as it goes. But its choice to leave out the heart of Zamperini’s faith journey means that the film excises much of what made the book great.

In his youth, Zamperini is a troublemaker who, while on the run because of his latest infraction, is seen by his track-running older brother, Pete, who senses that Louis may be able to channel his energies into a more disciplined form of running. Soon Zamperini, with Pete's help, begins training, and his dedication pays off when he makes the 1936 U.S. Olympics team and attracts international attention.

His plans to compete in the 1940 Olympics are disrupted by World War II. Zamperini, a bombardier, survives one crash landing before mechanical difficulties send his plane into the ocean during a subsequent mission. Zamperini’s efforts to survive on two inflatable life rafts for 47 days with crew members Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) make up the middle section of the film and deliver many of its most memorable moments: the capture of a sea bird, which is killed and eaten, but not kept down; the killing and eating of a shark; and a possible rescue plane that turns out to be a Japanese fighter plane.

The other major portion of Unbroken begins at the one-hour mark of this two-and-a-half-hour film, when Zamperini is rescued by the Japanese navy and becomes a prisoner of war. In the prison camp in Japan, Watanabe, also known as "The Bird" (Miyavi), singles out Zamperini for abuse, hitting and kicking him repeatedly, and, later, forcing each of Zamperini’s fellow prisoners to punch Zamperini in the face.

This section of the film can be difficult to watch, not only because of the physical torment Zamperini endures, but because the degree of abuse begins to feel repetitive and the nature of the prisoner/commander conflict begins to feel one-dimensional, making the climax of the film's POW section as much a relief as it is a triumphant surprise.

Unbroken is distinguished by a solid lead performance from Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire) as Zamperini, as well as strong aerial images and nicely lit interior shots from cinematographer Roger Deakins. Jolie's direction is more than competent, and the film, at its best, feels like a classic Hollywood war movie.

But what it doesn’t feel like is Zamperini’s full story. That's disappointing, because all indications are that, had Jolie wanted to bring the full story to the screen, she would have carried it off nicely. As it is, we can be happy that the few Christian references that carry over from the page to the screen come through loud and clear—just not as explicitly as they do in the Christ-focused Hillenbrand book. Those wanting to know the rest of the story can read Unbroken, which provided a more satisfying conclusion to Zamperini's extraordinary life.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: Racial epithets
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: A boy smokes and is discovered with an unmarked bottle of liquor
  • Sex/Nudity: A friend tells Louis, after he runs at a fast pace, "I hope you’re not that fast in the sack"; men forced by the Japanese to strip; we see their bare backsides of their emaciated bodies
  • Violence/Crime: War violence includes bombing runs and attacks by Japanese planes; gunfire; soldiers killed and wounded; a boy flees a police officer after committing theft; bullying; a boy is punched and fights back, and a police officer says, "Everyone in town wants you put away"; a father uses corporal punishment to discipline his son; a plane crash; Louis nearly drowns; a bloody head wound; a bird is killed and eaten; vomiting; fish are killed with a punch and eaten raw; a shark is captured, killed and eaten; men are shot at by a Japanese plane, Louis and his friends must jump into shark-infested waters; shark attacks; we hear a man being beaten; Louis and others are struck repeatedly by Watanabe; Louis' fellow prisoners are forced to punch Louis in the face; a POW falls from a great height
  • Religion/Morals/MarriageA pastor preaches on the creation and Christ; Louis sees his mother praying for him; Louis sees a friend praying and says his mother sometimes does that, and he asks the friend if God said anything back; Louis says God made the stars, and wonders why we're put on Earth; his friend replies that you try to live the best you can, then one day it’s over and an angel is sitting at the foot of your bed, ready to answer all your questions; Louis promises God, "If You get me through this, if You’ll answer my prayers, I swear I’ll dedicate my whole life. I’ll do whatever You want."

Publication date: December 23, 2014


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