I fell in love with Louis Zamperini when I saw a Sunday Morning piece on him back when Laura Hillenbrand’s book first came out. Not surprisingly, I found the best part of Angelina Jolie’s film adaptation was the end scene—showing a clip of the real “Louie” running through the streets of Tokyo with the Olympic Torch—a feat amazing both because of his age (80-something) and because of what he had gone through at the hands of the Japanese. I found the movie frustrating because I knew it was leaving out a lot of the most interesting bits (what happened after the war, for instance) and it seemed unduly focused on the brutality that Louie faced at the hands of one of his Japanese captors, “The Bird.” Now I’m glad that I didn’t read the book beforehand because I would have been even more irked.
Laura Hillenbrand does a masterful job of telling the story of one ordinary yet amazing man. Louie is born in New York State to Louise and Anthony Zamperini, Italian immigrants who move to California when Louie is around two. Hillenbrand tells a brief anecdote about how on the journey west, Louie jumps from the end of the train. When the train is forced to stop and backtrack to find the missing boy, Louie is found simply strolling on the track, not upset or scared. He says to his mother (in Italian), “I knew you’d come back.”
Hillenbrand returns to this story at various points to show that Louie was given, by birth or by chance, a great deal of optimism, a great lack of fear and quite a bit of stubbornness. She shows how these qualities play out as Louie goes from a troubled and rebellious kid to a high school track star to an Olympic athlete. When the U.S. gets into World War II, Louie joins the air corps and is sent to the Pacific. What happens then is the main focus of the movie and while it is also a very important part of the book, Hillenbrand portrays it as just one of the many challenges that Louie has to deal with. While the movie shows the world that Louie occupies, the book fleshes out this world—both at home and during the war.
Reading the book made me think a lot about Jolie’s directorial choices. There’s a lot more humor in the book, a much more nuanced discussion of how some of the Japanese prison guards attempted to help prisoners, and a lot more detail about the extremely dangerous life of a solider in the air corps (not from battles with the enemy but because of malfunctioning plane parts, pilot error, etc.) Jolie seems bent on making the heart of this movie the battle between Louie and “The Bird” but things are more complex that that. For example, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie where “The Bird” makes all the men in the prison camp punch Louie. However, in the book (so in real life), this punishment is given to a group of officers. I think it’s telling that the movie makes him the sole figure in this brutality. Jolie wants Louie to stand out while Hillenbrand seeks to contextualize him. Finally, the movie ends as the war ends but the book explores the even more interesting battles that Louie fights when he returns home.
This book made me love Louie even more (and I was glad that he lived to see the book published even if he didn’t get to attend the movie premier). However, this book made me think about much more than one man; it made me think about the terrible things humans do to one another, but about the amazing power humans have to survive and forgive. It also made me miss my grandfather and wish that I had gotten more of his war stories. I suspect he and Louie would have gotten along well.