‘An Unfinished Life’ is a 2005 drama film that explores the lives of a rancher and his estranged daughter-in-law, who unexpectedly shows up at his home and asks if she and her daughter can stay with him. Having parted ways after the death of his son in a car accident, the rancher and his daughter-in-law forge a path to reconciliation — a journey that is emotional and revealing.
Various characters, like the rancher’s young granddaughter and his live-in friend who suffers from chronic injuries after being mauled by a bear, give the movie ample nuance, and the stories seem as real as they are metaphorical in their portrayal of life’s ups and downs. Are you curious about how much of ‘An Unfinished Life’ is based on a true story? We’ve got the answers!
Is An Unfinished Life Based on a True Story?
No, ‘An Unfinished Life’ is not based on a true story. Directed by Lasse Hallström, the film is based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Mark Spragg, who also penned the book’s screen adaptation with his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg. The couple apparently began working on the screenplay even before the book was finished. In an interview, Mark detailed how he started penning the novel after many hours of discussion with his wife, “over a year of car trips,” outlining the book and the movie.
Meanwhile, his wife began working on the screenplay. The next few years were then spent rewriting drafts. Since it was essentially the same story being told through the lens of two different mediums, the writers allowed the medium to dictate the “texture” of their respective stories. The film (and the novel) is set in Einar’s (Robert Redford) ranch in Wyoming, where his daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez) comes to escape her abusive partner.
The setting plays an active role in the story and is likely inspired by the author’s own childhood, which was spent on a Wyoming ranch a few miles from Yellowstone National Park. Many of the characters also draw inspiration from the people Mark grew up around. Einar, the film’s central character, draws many of his qualities, like his simple life and dedication to hard work and family, from the old cowboys who worked on the Spragg family ranch and were a large part of the author’s formative years.
In his book, Mark also writes from the point of view of various central characters, including Einar’s Black, war veteran live-in friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman), and Jean’s young daughter Griff. Many attributes of the former were drawn from one of Mark’s ranch bunkmates and mentor, John, a World War 2 veteran and cowboy who the author described reverently. The masterful shift in tone, from a war veteran to that of a young girl, is also handled with finesse.
Mark described how he had taken inspiration from his goddaughters and his own experiences from when he was 10-years-old to find the voice of Griff’s character. Unsurprisingly, the hardest character to embody and write empathetically about was Jean’s abusive boyfriend, whose point of view is also part of the novel. Mark Spragg’s novel and the subsequent movie penned by him and his wife Virginia intertwine several contrasting characters (men, women, young, old, Black, and White) to form a realistic image of modern-day America.
It is interesting to note that the story of the contemporary western film, with all its nuances and plot points, originated from an image the author had in his mind of an embittered man nearing 70, sitting on his porch. This likely became the origin of the central character of Einar, around which the rest of the characters and their stories were gradually filled in, using the author’s eclectic childhood to give authenticity to them. Hence, though technically based on a fictional story, ‘An Unfinished Life’ is an attempt to authentically represent the journey of regular people and their search for shared meaning and love.
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