March 24, 2020
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Before Unbroken broke box-office records on Christmas Day, the book it is based on spent more than four years on the New York Times best-seller list, becoming one of the longest-running Times best-sellers in history. It is the second best-seller-turned-blockbuster for Laura Hillenbrand ’89, who enjoyed similar success with her critically acclaimed Seabiscuit. An English and history double major at Kenyon, Hillenbrand discusses Unbroken’s adaptation to the screen and the College’s influence on her writing career.
You are credited as a consultant for the Unbroken movie. Can you describe your role in the making of the film?
A lot of authors have difficult experiences seeing their books made into movies, in part because the filmmakers exclude them from the process. I had just the opposite experience. Angelina Jolie sought my input at every stage, was open to every idea, bounced a lot of her insights off of me, and was an attentive and careful listener. She was not just a director; she was a scholar. She said she felt that she and I were sisters, working together to carry Louie Zamperini's legacy forward, and I think she was right. We trusted each other, and I knew that getting this story right, and honoring our subject, was as important to her as it was to me. She was absolutely devoted to being true to Louie and his life, and she made me an integral part of that.
When telling a story, what can you do with books that you can’t do with film, and vice versa?
I think one of the biggest advantages that authors have over filmmakers is the spaciousness of the stories authors can tell. As an author, I can weave in a tremendous amount of exposition that helps establish context and set up events in a story. I don't have to worry too much about length. In Unbroken, I could talk about the risks facing WWII airmen, the frailty of the planes, the plight of downed fliers, the reasons why airmen had only a 50 percent chance of surviving a tour of duty. These chapters informed the reader in a way that, I hope, made the subsequent story, and the events in the lives of the subjects, much more involved and dramatic, because you know what these men are facing.
Filmmakers have only minimal opportunity to shape context in this way, because films can only be so long. That's a huge disadvantage, and was a very difficult hurdle in making Unbroken. On the other hand, both writers and filmmakers are aiming to craft visual scenes, but filmmakers jump right over the medium of words to convey images directly and with great immediacy, with sound and color and motion and real people making it all feel so authentic. It was breathtaking to me to see the plane crash scene in Unbroken and the horse racing scenes in Seabiscuit. And there are moments in both movies in which things I needed several sentences to convey were conveyed in the smallest gestures and facial expressions of the marvelous actors. I envy the filmmakers in that.
The film adaptation of your book allowed Louis Zamperini’s story to reach even more audiences. What message do you hope resonates with your readers and the film’s viewers?
I think the most important message of Louie Zamperini's life is the wondrous breadth of possibility open to all of us, if we only allow ourselves to see it. Louie didn't just survive his odyssey; he prevailed over it. The biggest reason for his was his optimism. He did not allow himself to think he would perish, and in believing this, his mind was open to seeing every opportunity to keep going, to win little victories, to defy death. He was a person just like you or me, and somehow he drew from himself the resolve, the ingenuity, the hopefulness, the defiance, to overcome. That's extraordinarily inspiring. He wanted all of us to believe in ourselves as he believed in himself. If he could overcome what he did, what does that say about what is possible for all of us?
How did your experience at Kenyon influence your writing career?
Kenyon was everything to my writing career. It wasn't just that the school places singular emphasis on writing well, even in classes that lie far from literature. And it wasn't just that the classes carried me into a universe of sublime literature. At Kenyon, for the first time in my life, my writing was noticed and nourished, most notably by my first English professor, Megan Macomber. Not far into my freshman year, I turned in a paper in her creative writing class. She flipped it over and wrote a beautiful note telling me, emphatically, that I had to be a writer. I was so moved. No one had ever encouraged me before, and her words reached into a secret place in myself, a place in which I had always harbored dreams of becoming a writer. She lit me up. That moment, and my years at Kenyon, informed my entire life. I'm forever in her debt. I am forever in Kenyon's debt. When I arrived, I was a lost kid; when I left, I was a writer. Kenyon is not a school you leave behind when your four years are over. It's an experience, a place, a state of mind, a point of view, that you carry with you forever.