A year ago I received a copy of a book titled Unbroken. It was one of the best books I've ever read. Laura Hillenbrand brought the story of Louis Zamperini to life in a masterful way.
On Christmas Day, Unbroken was released in theaters. After watching the movie, I walked away extremely disappointed in Angelina Jolie's version of Louis Zamperini's story.
It is not uncommon for books that are made into movies to disappoint those who read the book before seeing the movie. But my disappointment had nothing to do with that common frustration.
Why was my response to the same story so different?
Because storytelling is an art. It is not a science.
Growing up, I assumed history was a science. Once I finished a history book on World War II, I considered myself an expert on the World War II.
I was wrong. History isn't a list of every event that ever happened. History is an interpretation of events. Every historian tells a story. And that story includes certain events and excludes other events.
Every book or movie that sets out to tell a story goes through this process of editing.
Every. Single. One.
Including the Bible. There are four gospels. Each one is trying to tell the story of the good news of Jesus Christ. But each author is writing at a different time, to a different church, from a different perspective. They tell the story differently.
The Apostle John explicitly admits this in his gospel.
"Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." -John 20:30-31
"Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written." -John 21:25
History is told slant, with an agenda, with an audience in mind.
Angelina Jolie, the director of Unbroken, told Zamperini's story in a certain way, as every storyteller does.
The movie was very well done. Jolie tells the story of Louis Zamperini as a story of courage, perseverance, and survival. All of these virtues are certainly appropriate descriptions for a man like Zamperini. Anyone who survived a plane crash, 46 days on a raft in the Pacific, and horrific abuse as a POW deserves to be honored for all that he or she endured.
And Jolie did all she could to focus on Zamperini's experience of torture at the hands of the Japanese. A special focus was placed on the relationship between Zamperini and a Japanese Corporal named Matsuhiro Watanabe, AKA "The Bird." In scene after scene, the movie depicts the increasing torture that "The Bird" inflicts on Louie.
And in the movie's climactic scene, Zamperini "defeats" Watanabe by enduring his abuse and continuing to stand up in the face of what seems like certain death. Zamperini finds victory in his unwillingness to be "broken" by his captors' torture.
It's a story that stokes the flames of patriotism.
It's a war story.
It's a survival story.
It's a true story. But it's not the whole story.
It's a story that's not uncommon in a world where torture and war are all too common.
And in light of recent investigations into the CIA's post-9/11 torture of prisoners, where at least 26 prisoners were wrongfully held and many of those 26 were tortured, it is ironic that Jolie's story of endurance, perseverance, and survival could be told by a film director in the Middle East with Americans playing the roles of the Japanese soldiers in Unbroken.
It is impossible not to be outraged at the treatment of Zamperini in the movie. The torture scenes raise feelings of hatred and a desire for revenge.
Jolie's story is missing something.
It's missing the last 66 pages of Hillenbrand's book.
In fact, she recounts Louie's suffering that continues as he leaves the battlefield and enters back into civilian life. It's one thing to survive as a POW. It's another thing to thrive with the ghosts of World War II that will not let you go.
When Zamperini returns to the States, he marries and has children. But over time, Zamperini is haunted by "The Bird." Night after night, he experiences nightmares that fuel him with hatred and a desire for revenge that can only be quieted with his addiction to alcohol.
The turning point in Hillenbrand's story isn't Louie's determination to be "unbroken" by his suffering as a prisoner of war. The turning point happens at a Billy Graham crusade that Louie's wife forced him to attend.
After his conversion at the Graham Crusade, Louie lost all desire to drink. And as he experienced the love and forgiveness of God, he began to turn loose of the hatred and revenge he held in his heart for his captors in Japan.
Jolie's story of endurance through suffering is a common story in our world. Many men and women have endured suffering and torture only to remain trapped and enslaved by the chains and prison camps their bodies have escaped.
But Zamperini wasn't freed from his ghosts until after forgave "The Bird" and the rest of his captors.
In the end, Louie gets the chance to greet and forgive many of his captors in Japan. But he never again came face-to-face with "The Bird."
However, he did write a letter that someone promised to hand to Watsuhiro Watanabe.
Hillenbrand includes the letter in the last pages of her book:
To Matsuhiro [sic] Watanabe,
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.
Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war's end.
The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, "Forgive your enemies and pray for them."
As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 [sic] and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison...I asked them about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.
Now, that's a story.
We need stories that do more than share hope of survival.
We need stories where "The Myth of Redemptive Violence" isn't the only answer to our need for revenge.
As Desmond Tutu once said, "There is no future without forgiveness."
We are the stories we tell ourselves. So choose your stories wisely.