Roger Barbee: Books and their movies

Roger Barbee

Movies are one art form; literature another. Although a movie may be based on a short story, novel, or other form of literature, the makers of the movie are not necessarily restricted to closely following the literature.

A well-known exception, I think, could be “To Kill a Mockingbird.” However, as a teacher of literature, I always reminded my students that if they were to see a movie made from literature, they should not expect the movie to be just like the book. They are different art forms. Yet, I think if a viewer has read a piece of literature that has been made into a movie, that viewer will attend the movie with certain expectations based on what has been read. Although a human trait, I think it an unwise one. For example, let us consider the book “Unbroken” and the just-released movie of the same title. I must warn you that if you have not read the book, this article will likely ruin the ending for you because that must be discussed.

The non-fiction book “Unbroken” tells the story of Louis Zamperini who grew up in Torrence, California. As a youngster he became a long distance runner because it offered him a way out of his circumstances. He set the American high school record for the mile and placed eighth in the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. His last lap of that race so impressed Hitler that he asked to meet the 19-year-old American runner.

Returning home, Zamperini continued to run and set the United States collegiate record for the mile. However, like so many of his contemporaries, World War II erupted, and Zamperini joined the armed forces. He became a bombardier on a B-24 and in one mission his plane was shot down. He survived on a raft in the vast Pacific Ocean for 47 days. There, he made a promise to God before being captured by the Japanese and ending up in a POW camp on mainland Japan.

While imprisoned there, a particular guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed by the prisoners “Bird,” took unusual pleasure in torturing Zamperini. For the remainder of the war, he suffered horrible abuses from this particular guard, but with the war’s end he came home a hero where, like so many soldiers of that conflict, he attempted to “put his life back together.” But the alcohol he used heavily only hindered his healing.

Recognizing his deep pain, his wife in 1949 persuaded him to attend a tent revival in Los Angeles held by the Rev. Billy Graham. The first night, Zamperini stormed out in anger, but he returned the next, remembering the promise he had made on that raft. He quit drinking and smoking and kept his promise to God by beginning a life of service, and he forgave the guards who had tortured him, especially “Bird.” In October 1950, he went to Sugamo Prison in Japan and met many of the guards from his imprisonment, but not the sadistic “Bird” who had escaped punishment. But Zamperini had forgiven him and a meeting was not necessary.

Years ago when I read the book, I was enthralled by the story of this amazing man, and the obstacles he faced and the experiences he had had. The book, for me, read much like a mystery. I loaned my copy to several friends and relatives and all of us see it as “a page turner.” Yet, all of us were surprised and uplifted by the last few chapters in which author Laura Hillenbrand tells so well how Louis Zamperini became “unbroken.”

He was not “unbroken” because he survived all of his horrible experiences in the war, but he was “unbroken” because he remembered his raft promise and kept it and he forgave his tormentors. Without this, he would have remained a broken alcoholic.

Mary Ann and I had plans to see the movie, but when a couple who had read my copy of the book told us that the movie ended without the revival and Zamperini’s becoming “unbroken,” we agreed that the movie is not honest and not something we are interested in supporting.

For whatever reason(s), the maker of the movie decided not to include that part of Zamperini’s life. I think she knew that the violence of war and a prison camp and the Olympics of Hitler would cause viewers to flock to the theaters to see her version of his great life, but she saw no profit in including a tent revival and its influence on Louis Zamperini.

I think that all of her talk about this great American life and the need for it to be known is just words. Hillenbrand tells the man’s story, but the movie is just a slick, Hollywood version.

I encourage all readers to get a copy of the book and read Zamprrini’s amazing story. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate Louis Zamperini’s courage and his conversion. But reading the book may just change your life. I doubt the movie can or will.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at red-hill@shentel.net.