“I’ve got so many scars, they’re criss-crossing each other!”
“As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back. Sure, their stated quest might be to get home, but your job is to make sure that wherever they end up is a new and different place.”
Screenwriter John August
Burn it down
The story of Louis Zamperini would an amazing one if it were merely fictional. But the fact that he’s a real person who lived a real heartbreaking but redemptive story is beyond words I can adequately express. I just finished Laura Hillenbrand’s book on Zamperini’s life, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, and it’s one of those rare books that can invade your soul.
The story of Zamperini’s survival of not only a plane crash during World War II, but his enduring weeks lost at sea followed by two year’s of abuse as a POW is rich with conflict. The book was named by Time magazine as the best book of 2010 and it spent several weeks atop the New York Times best seller list and even now after 21 weeks on the list it is still number two.
One of the reasons that I think the book Unbroken connects with people is not only because it is a great story well told, but because it’s a timeless story that resonates with people in difficult times. While we may never have to survive a plane crash or being tortured as a prisoner of war, we have our own battles—our own scars. And we are surrounded by a world at war.
And it is inspirational in the truest sense to read a survivor’s story. To learn about somebody who was once an Olympic runner who not only had his dreams ripped away, but was taken to depths that few humans will ever have to endure. To see somebody rise from those ashes is a story of hope.
From a writer’s perspective one of the great things to learn from Hillenbrand is her success comes not from telling original stories. But to build and add life to old stories. Her first book was the bestseller Seabiscuit. (The movie poster of the movie based on the book is the only movie poster I have in my office.) And just as Seabiscuit was once a story of national fame that had largely faded from memory, the same is true of Zamperini.
Though Zamperini had twice written his autobiography (Devil at My Heals) I don’t recall ever hearing his name before Hillenbrand’s book. Like documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Hillenbrand has a way of tapping into stories that enrich our lives.
And for whatever reason Hollywood has not been able to bring Zamperini’s story to the big screen. Not that they haven’t tried—back in 1957 Tony Curtis was set to play the young Zamperini. More recently Universal Studios bought the rights to Hillenbrand’s book, and when I least heard Scott Copper (Crazy Heart) was set to write the script and Francis Lawerence (I Am Legend)was lined up to direct.
P.S. It’s also worth noting that Hillenbrand, who has her own afflictions, took seven years to write Unbroken.
Related Posts: Writing “Seabiscuit”