It was a typical Friday night and my partner and I got cozy on the couch to watch Unbroken (were we the only people on the planet who hadn’t seen this?).
As a runner, I had been looking forward to this. I anticipated realistic footage of the strain and struggle it takes to become world-class athlete (I don’t exactly know this strain and struggle but like to imagine that I do).
But that didn’t happen.
The movie opened with an immediate war action shot, and while it was a well-done action shot, I felt a bit slighted. I didn’t even know any of the characters and I was expected to emotionally involve myself in their plight.
It was a little like sex without foreplay.
But then it got better (as sex without foreplay often does). The childhood flashback were stronger and offered glimpses inside this movie character based on the real-life Louis Zamperini. And there were running scenes! On a dirt track! With a bunch of guys in really uncomfortable-looking old-fashioned shoes. And I thought, yes–now it’s finally going somewhere.
But these running scenes were brief, with little mention of a struggle or even training. It appeared as if Louis started running, put in a bit of practice and wham!, found himself competing at the Olympics.
If only it were that easy.
As a writer, I realize that not all scenes can be developed, that some must be implied, and that various devices exist for doing so, blah, blah, blah. I tried to shut up and just eat my popcorn but found myself complaining to my partner, on and on, and I could tell that I was annoying him, too, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
Then, wham!, the scene changed and it was war action again, and suddenly Louis and the rest of his crew are on a plane hurling for the ocean (OMG, they’re hurling for the ocean!). Three survive and drift about on a raft for 47 days before being
rescued captured by the Japanese.
Okay, this was exciting!
Except I just couldn’t suspend belief because the three men looked too damned neat to be stranded on a raft for weeks. Their shirts were too clean, their hair too groomed, their faces barely ravished by the elements.
I especially couldn’t stand that Louis’ mustache and beard remained perfectly groomed, even as the days rushed past and the men remained at sea. And in one angle, I could have sworn that I saw hair gel in his hair.
Minor points, perhaps, but it was enough to cause me to stop watching and start reading a book instead. My partner kept at it for about another fifteen minutes and then started reading, too (we are a lively couple).
Later, though, I started thinking: What was it exactly that turned me off? Movies, even those based on fact, are filled with fiction. I know that. I expect that. And books are the same way. Heck, most novels would never stand up to a single day of real life yet I happily read on, happily allow myself to become sucked down inside a pretend and false world.
Yet Unbroken rubbed me the wrong way. I expected a gritty and raw movie. Instead, I found one that felt too orchestrated, too precise, too fine-tuned.
It reminds me of a quote by Natalie Goldberg:
“Life is not orderly. No matter how we try to make it so, right in the middle of it we die, lose a leg, fall in love, or drop a jar of applesauce.”
I wish someone had dropped a jar of applesauce near Angelina Jolie as she was directing Unbroken. Maybe then the gritty scenes would have felt grittier and dirtier and more realistic. (Instead of fretting over this, I’m ordering the book and reading the real story, by Laura Hillenbrand, and not the Hollywood-glossed-over-until-it’s-starched-and clean version.)
It’s a good lesson, I think, and a reminder to not edit our writing down to perfection, that sometimes a little messiness, a little randomness, a little unwanted facial hair or smelly shirts or one or two slightly clunky sentences within a paragraph of beautiful prose, can give our books a more realistic, original and authentic voice.