It's a long way from Da Nang to the North Pole, but Bill Broyles has somehow found the way. In 1970, while walking knee-deep through a rice paddy near Da Nang in the Vietnam War, Lt. Broyles wondered if he'd ever make it back home. He did make it back, and went on to enjoy an acclaimed career as a journalist-founding Texas Monthly magazine and later serving as editor-in-chief at Newsweek-before turning to screenwriting. Broyles wrote such well-loved films as Apollo 13 and Cast Away, both starring Tom Hanks. Now Broyles, Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, who teamed up for Cast Away, are together again for The Polar Express, based on the Chris Van Allsburg children's book of the same title. Hanks plays the role of five different characters in the film, which technologically is a cross between live action and animation-a new Zemeckis-developed technique called "performance capture."
The Polar Express, which opens in theaters next Wednesday, November 10, is the story of a doubting boy who takes an extraordinary ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Ultimately, it's a tale of faith, hope and love, as the boy's skepticism melts away into the wide-eyed wonder of belief. That's what attracted Broyles to the story in the first place-the journey from doubt to faith-because it so much mirrors his own odyssey.
Were you familiar with the book before you got involved in this project?
Bill Broyles: Yes. I've been reading it to my five children since it came out [in 1985]. The reason I did the movie was because the book was such an incredible bonding experience with my kids.
The story is about childlike wonder at Christmastime. Did you have that wonder as a kid?
Broyles: Yes. I was always lying awake on Christmas Eve, wanting to hear the sound of the bells on Santa's sleigh. I did it every year, and kept thinking I would hear them. For that reason, this story has such resonance to me.
But I've always thought of this as not just a book for children, but for anyone, because we all go through that passage from the innocence and wonder in the magical world of childhood, to that world of adulthood where that magic and wonder is gone-or maybe deeply buried. I think every year at Christmas, particularly if you repeat it with your children, you relive that world of magic and wonder and belief with them that you had yourself.
So when I get to the end of this book, when it talks about how the bell still rings for all those who truly believe, I always choke up. It always gets to me deeply emotionally. My kids think it's just a nice story, but I am deeply affected by it because it touches that portion of me that I don't want to be lost. And it kind of reconnects me to the power of belief.
What kind of belief are you talking about?
Broyles: We did not want to make this movie theologically heavy-handed. The idea was that it would be a kind of non-sectarian journey of belief-but if anyone wishes to see it as a parable of a journey to belief in a religious way, all the elements are there. The classic parables in the Bible are stories that don't have an obvious religious import until Jesus explains them. In that way, we feel it's a very deeply spiritual movie.
We did the same thing with Cast Away, which to me is a great movie of redemption. If you were going to pick any text for Cast Away, it would be that you have to lose your life in order to save it-think of the moment where he lets go of the oars and gives himself up to whatever higher power you want to imagine. That's when he's finally rescued. We were aware those things had potentially religious or spiritual implications, but when you're making movie that's not directly taken from biblical texts, it really has to work as a non-religious story first. And then, what spiritual dimensions are in there need to be wisely played; they can't overwhelm just a simple story.
The Polar Express is really a journey of belief. The premise is that the girl who truly believes already can hear the bell, which helps her find their way to Santa Claus. But when Santa Claus does appear, the boy still can't see him. It's only at the moment where he says I believe that Santa Claus appears to him.
Does this story in any way reflect your own spiritual journey?
Broyles: Oh sure. I would have loved to ride the Polar Express. Each of the children learns some specific lesson about their own life. The train's conductor says the thing about trains is not where it's going, but deciding to get on. But there's also a hobo who's kind of the voice of doubt, the voice that says seeing is believing. But the conductor says sometimes the most important things in life are the things you can't see. So you have the conductor pointing the boy toward faith and the hobo reminding him of his doubts. And then there's Santa Claus himself.
I hope it's sort of universal-that you don't have to be of a particular denomination or even particularly be a Christian to see it as a journey of belief. It's an example of the kind of spiritual journey that everybody in one way or another goes on.
It sounds like it's different from other recent animated movies in that it's not necessarily looking to hit adults in the funny bone, but in the heart.
Broyles: True. Bob [Zemeckis] and Tom [Hanks] and I wanted to make a movie for our kids, but we also wanted to make a movie for us as adults, tapping that childlike capacity for belief in us. We showed it to two preview audiences-one to families with kids in the afternoon, and one to teenagers and adults in the evening. The evening audience liked it just as much as the afternoon audience. I think they expected some of the irony or irreverence of the Shrek movies to kind of make them chuckle. It's not without humor and wit, but it does appeal less to our funny bone than to our heart.
You took a short book and made a full-length movie out of it. How do you fill out the story without padding it, without straying too far from it, and remaining true to the original?
Broyles: Often, with children's classics, the temptation has been to jazz it up with screenwriting clichés. We knew from the beginning we didn't want to do that. We didn't want to set up this horrible Hollywood thing where like the kids had to get to the North Pole because Santa Claus had been kidnapped by terrorists and if they didn't make it there, there would be no Christmas. Or the conductor was in league with so and so to sabotage things, and they had to take over the train. We wanted to stay completely true to the simple journey of belief that is in the book.
You have quite a personal history-working in Civil Rights Movement, serving in Vietnam, and later the editor-in-chief of Newsweek. Seems like all those could add up to the ultimate cynic.
Broyles: That's a really good point, but that's the last thing I am. I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to public figures and public policy. But my own heart, I love happy endings-and there is not a drop of cynicism in The Polar Express.
I've seen and experienced some things that are truly terrible things; there's evil in the world. But the joy of having children is to remember the journey of innocence and the journey of belief. And it's not always easy. That's one of the things in this movie; they don't get there directly. They have to take detours and face some obstacles, but it's their belief that gets them there. I don't find that to be Pollyanna-ish. I think that, whatever the world gives you, you want to keep a sense of hope and belief. Or else, what's the point?
Did you have that sense of hope and belief when you were in Vietnam?
Broyes: I had to, yeah, just to get out of there.
You've compared this to Cast Away. What about Apollo 13? That spacecraft was in some ways like this train. There was reason to lose hope, but they kept believing they'd get home.
Broyles: That's a really good point. They always believed they would get back. It's interesting-all three movies are about journeys. You leave home, either in a spaceship or on a train or an airplane. You end up at some strange place, and you've got to get back. They're all that kind of odyssey model.
The Wilson character in Cast Away-the volleyball-was that your idea?
Broyles: That came up when I was doing research in the Sea of Cortez. All the stuff-trying to open a coconut, trying spear a fish, trying to find water, trying to make fire-all those things, I went through, trying to go through basic survival. But when I finally figured all that out, I realized that the heart of the movie wasn't about physical survival, but the loneliness that comes after you have figured out how to survive physically.
After I figured that out, I went down to the water the next morning to spear some stingrays, and there was a Wilson volleyball. So I put some seaweed and some clamshells on it and started talking to it. And I thought, Wait a minute, this should be in the movie. It was one of those lucky things.
Back to The Polar Express. How many times have you seen the film?
Broyles: Complete through, start to finish in its final stage, twice. But in various stages, many, many, many times. I don't know how many.
Are you tired of it?
Broyles: Absolutely not. And I still get choked up at the end.
So take the hankies, eh?
Broyles: I'm such a sap. It just moves me. It touches something and I just can't get around it.
To learn more about The Polar Express, check out the official website.
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