EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures has acquired screen rights to Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling new book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The studio is in talks with Francis Lawrence to direct, and wants Crazy Heart helmer Scott Cooper to write the script. Lawrence, best known for helming I Am Legend, just completed Water for Elephants for Fox 2000, with Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz starring.

The studio that rode Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit into the winner’s circle as a film now hopes she’ll work the same magic on the story of the unbreakable spirit of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic track prodigy who endured unimaginable hardship as a WWII POW. The deal, worth 7-figures if the movie gets made, gives an important second wind to a project that Universal has been trying to make for more than 50 years. Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff will produce. Filmmaker (and Zamperini’s son-in-law) Mick Garris is exec producer.

Hillenbrand’s Random House book, currently number 2 on The New York Times bestseller list, fleshes out Zamperini’s survival story in remarkable detail. As a youth, Zamperini transformed from a Depression Era troublemaker into the “Torrance tornado,” a world class runner who became the youngest American to compete on the U.S. team. He ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and though he didn’t medal, Zamperini ran a final lap so fast that Adolf Hitler asked to meet him. Expected to mature into gold medal form–and a threat to break the 4-minute mile–by the 1940 games set for Tokyo, Zamperini ‘s dreams were dashed by WWII. By the time he crossed the Pacific en route to Japan, Zamperini was an Air Force bombardier. After emerging unscathed after several dangerous bombing runs, Zamperini crashed in the Pacific while on a rescue mission. Most of their crew-mates dead, Zamperini and two others floated in a raft for 47 days. After surviving hunger, thirst and incessant shark attacks in a raft that drifted 2000 miles, Zamperini was caught by the Japanese Navy and then the hardship really began. First dispatched to a hellhole called Execution Island (named because Japanese guards routinely beheaded prisoners), Zamperini’s Olympic feats got him transferred to another POW camp where he could have lived in relative comfort. But when he refused to read anti-American propaganda statements over the radio, Zamperini was sent to serve hard time. Starved, subjected to medical experiments, slave labor, and brutal beatings by guards, Zamperini was specifically targeted by a sadistic overseer named Mutsuhiro Watanabe.  Called “The Bird” by the POWs, Watanabe made it his mission to break Zamperini’s spirit with brutal beatings and mental and physical torture. Zamperini would not break, but the guard kept trying right up until the war ended and the war criminal slipped away and eluded manhunts. The Bird lived on in Zamperini’s nightmares, though. After once waking to discover he was choking his terrified wife, Zamperini was convinced his freedom depended on returning to Japan to kill his tormenter. On the verge of divorce, alcoholism and a total breakdown, Zamperini discovered another way. Dragged by his wife to a tent where Billy Graham preached, Zamperini embraced his message and decided to forgive all of his captors. The nightmares ceased. Zamperini even traveled to Japan and met most of the guards  to forgive them in person. When The Bird finally resurfaced, Zamperini returned to Japan and prepared to meet and forgive him, too. Watanabe refused, but Zamperini outlived The Bird, who died in 2003.

Universal bought Zamperini’s life rights way back in 1957 along with his memoir, Devil at My Heels. Tony Curtis wanted to play him, expecting a script to be ready after he returned from shooting Spartacus for director Stanley Kubrick. The project stalled, though, and remained dormant until 1998. After CBS broadcast a moving segment during its broadcast of the Nagano Olympics where Zamperini carried the Olympic torch, Nicolas Cage wanted to play Zamperini. His Brillstein-Grey managers got the project going with Antoine Fuqua, and a Robert Schenkkan script rewritten by Neil Tolkin. Titled Iron Man and later Zamperini, the drama once again languished.

Hillenbrand has done far more than bring a great title to the table. I read her book over the holiday. Exhaustively researched and written over seven years, it’s as engrossing as Seabiscuit. Her book and research will become the cornerstone for the film.

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Baer, the producer who has been pushing the project since he was a film exec at Brillstein-Grey in 1998, said he was hopeful that the acclaim for the book–and the elements attracted by it–will finally get Zamperini’s story told. The new momentum comes at a time , he said, when there is a bumper crop of age appropriate twenty-something actors who could play Zamperini as he went through his wartime ordeal.

“Lou’s journey is so incredible, I’ve always felt it would attract the right people at the right time,” Baer told me. “Fortunately, Laura’s book is the most persuasive creative argument a producer could ever have. The nicest part is that Lou, at 93, is still alive to see all this attention paid to him and his remarkable life.”

CAA brokered the book deal for Janklow & Nesbit, and CAA reps Lawrence, Zamperini and Garris. ICM reps Cooper.