What if the story of Joseph stopped with Genesis 44? You would read all about Joseph’s unjust treatment at the hands of his jealous brothers. You would learn of his eventual arrival in Egypt as a slave, of his ultimate arrest and betrayal at the hands of Potiphar’s wife and two of Pharaoh’s workers. You would think Joseph showed a lot of grit and survived all that terrible stuff.

But what if the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was missing? What if there was no glorious and dramatic scene of Joseph forgiving his brothers through tears? How would we interpret the story if it were missing one of the Old Testament’s most glorious phrases: “What you intended for evil, God intended for good”?

We would leave the story of Joseph thinking, Wow, that Joseph is one resilient, tough guy. We might even be tempted to think along with Pelagius and his theological ancestors, The human spirit can be strong and indomitable sometimes.  

Or what if the Bible gave us the four Gospels, but not the epistles or other New Testament writings? We’d know about Jesus’s claims, his person, his work on the cross. We’d know about his ethical teaching, his understanding of the law and its proper application via the Sermon on the Mount. We would have a great story, much great teaching and deep courage and sacrifice shown by the central character, but we wouldn’t know the full meaning of Jesus’s work or its application. We wouldn’t know about justification by faith alone. We wouldn’t know much about penal substitution. We’d have a tremendous, uplifting story with high ethical principles and an incredible account of self-sacrifice. It would make us feel good about Jesus, but we would not have the depth of understanding of the gospel that Paul, Peter, and the other New Testament writers provide for us.

That is precisely how I left the theater feeling late last week after watching the new movie Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, based on the runaway bestseller of the same title by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken is the incredible story of Olympic runner and World War II hero Louie Zamperini. So spellbinding was the book, I read the 500-page work in about three days, which is something close to a personal record. Unbroken, the book, is simply incredible and lives up to its ultra-compelling subtitle.

The movie stunned me too, but in an unexpected way: I saw survival in spades, I saw plenty of human resilience, but I witnessed little redemption. But before I offer some critique, I want to make it clear that Unbroken, the movie, does have some decidedly strong points:

  • In a little more than two hours, it tells the skeleton of Zamperini’s story compellingly, portraying in particularly dramatic form the 47 days he spent afloat in a life raft in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean following the crash of his B-24 Liberator (such an unwieldy and dangerous flying machine, pilots called it “the flying casket”). The raft scenes complete with omnipresent sharks are the most interesting part of the movie.
  • It captures well the near insane hatred aimed at Zamperini by POW camp warden Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed “The Bird” by POWs). The Bird repeatedly beat the former Olympian and had Zamperini transferred to his prison camp each time he was “promoted” to another camp. The movie depicts well the incredible scene in which Zamperini holds a heavy wooden beam aloft for several minutes after Watanabe instructed guards, “Kill him if he drops it.”  
  • Christianity is neither mocked nor completely expunged from the movie. In one pivotal moment in the book, also portrayed in the movie, Louie and fellow survivor Phil Phillips, a believer and pilot of the moribund B-24, are still floating in the life raft. Louie turns to Phil and asks, as he gazes heavenward at the illuminated Milky Way, whether Phil believes in a creator of the universe. Phil affirms his belief in a creator who rules over his creation. Another scene shows Phil praying fervently.  

The main shortcoming with Unbroken, the movie, comes at the end. It stops short. The good news of redemption is missing. In the final scene, Zamperini returns to Los Angeles where he is greeted by his brother and parents. He hugs them, and then the movie ends. The book includes the incredible aftermath of Zamperini’s harrowing war experience. We learn that post-war stress sent Zamperini spiraling downward into a life of alcohol use and verbal abuse of his wife. Zamperini wrestled with inner demons that nearly broke the main character of Unbroken.

Like the famous “but God” clause following the account of man’s fallen nature in Ephesians 2, the final chapter in Unbroken, the book, powerfully recounts Zamperini’s conversion to Christ through his wife’s witness and the ministry of Billy Graham at his 1949 crusade in Los Angeles. Ultimately, like Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, Zamperini returns to Japan and seeks personal reconciliation with his captors. He even sought a meeting with Watanabe, but the former POW abuser refused to meet with him. Following the final scene, the movie provides these details in brief footnotes. But the truly happy ending of the story, redemption, is left for the moviegoer to search out in the book.

Ultimately, Unbroken suffers from a similar malady to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: it portrays the unconscionable suffering of its protagonist, but doesn’t tease out the redemptive significance of the suffering. Louie Zamperini was tested in ways that were difficult to watch at times. He was beaten and beaten and beaten and yet, by the grace of God, he survived. In the end, he became a new man in Christ, he turned the other cheek, and he forgave those who abused him. The book makes it clear that Zamperini knew his survival was an act of mercy from the hands of a sovereign God. In the end, Louie Zamperini was more than a conqueror through the Savior.

Unbroken is a good movie, but it is only a rough approximation of the book. It is the story of Joseph without the final chapters, the Gospels without the epistles. Survival and resilience, yes, but redemption, no. Watch the movie, but by all means, don’t miss the book.