Series: Kendrick Brothers Movie Novelizations
Published by Tyndale on July 23, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Christian, Suspense, Novelization
Buy on Amazon
Life changes overnight for coach John Harrison when his high school basketball team and state championship dreams are crushed under the weight of unexpected news. When the largest manufacturing plant shuts down and hundreds of families leave their town, John questions how he and his family will face an uncertain future. After reluctantly agreeing to coach cross-country, John and his wife, Amy, meet an aspiring athlete who's pushing her limits on a journey toward discovery. Inspired by the words and prayers of a newfound friend, John becomes the least likely coach helping the least likely runner attempt the impossible in the biggest race of the year.
It’s always difficult to review a novelization. Even the most creative writer is ultimately bound by the confines of the movie’s plot and there are both overt and implicit expectations. Developing a book from a screenplay means taking all the visual elements of a movie and figuring out how to make them work in novel form. The classic training montage of a sports movie—complete with epic score—is an instant winner in even the most boring of movies, but it’s difficult to parlay into novel form.
There’s also the issue of criticizing the novelist for something they had no control over—except perhaps signing the contract to write the book. Did they faithfully recreate the book in novel form? Five stars! Was the source material mediocre and lackluster? Three stars! How are we to choose? Ideally, you end up with a solid movie that receives an equally solid novelization treatment.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Overcomer. I mention all this at the forefront because I don’t think this is Fabry’s fault. My criticisms lie with the source material, not the adaptation. In fact, it is a credit to Fabry that his writing skills were able to keep me drawn in and wanting to follow the story even as I had some problems with the plotline.
Overcomer is the story of a young girl with a troubled past and an impulse to steal. Or maybe it’s the story of a high school basketball coach forced to coach cross country. The book isn’t quite sure, giving us a half-hearted look at two protagonists instead of focusing on one. The back cover copy focuses on John, who is the high school coach, but his story is less than compelling and he is rightfully overshadowed by Hannah, the titular Overcomer.
After being kicked out of her public school, she finds herself the recipient of an anonymous donation to attend a private Christian school. It’s here that she meets John Harrison, who is being forced to coach cross country because…reasons? The town’s biggest employer has just moved and decimated the town’s infrastructure. We’re told how this will affect the football team (which is never seen again), but that it won’t affect the basketball team (it does, again, because reasons). No word on how the overall larger economy of the town is affected.
John must coach cross country, even when Hannah is the only one who tries out. The two form a bond as Hannah begins to change under the influence of good Christian people and as John figures out how to coach cross country. His coaching ability is bolstered by a Good Samaritan who takes an interest in John. John had been with his pastor visiting a parishioner in the hospital when he struck up a conversation with a guy next door. The guy is a former track star who teaches John the ins and outs of the sport.
And (cue drama and spoilers)—is Hannah’s thought-to-be-dead father.
You know how it ends. Hannah comes to faith in Christ. She meets her dad. Wins the Big Game. Paint-by-numbers storytelling. And all this, I could overlook it if that was it. This would be a good, faithful adaptation of a mediocre movie. 3.5 stars. But here’s what bugs me as both a pastor and a coach—and as the father of two children of color.
First, and perhaps most debatable, there is more than a hint of White Saviorism in the story. Poor little criminal Black girl gets her life together only after her White coach becomes the father figure she never had. Some of this is mitigated in the movie by having Priscilla Shirer play the school’s principal—but her and Hannah are literally the only two Black people prominent in the movie. This criticism is debatable because race isn’t prominent in the book—I don’t think it’s ever mentioned (maybe it’s own criticism)—and because at least one prominent person of color didn’t see it as an issue. But I do bring it up because I have seen it listed as a concern in the Black community.
Second, Hannah has asthma. This is an important plot point. She’s told at first that she can’t run because of that, then that it’s okay because her grandma signed a waiver. There is an instance in the book where she uses her inhaler mid-run and another where she collapses during a run because she doesn’t have it. This is a major plot point and (spoilers again) is used in the Big Race, where Hannah passes out right at the end of the race (leaving us in suspense over whether or not she won).
As a coach, I cannot begin to express to you how irresponsible this is. Inhalers are for emergency use. If a child with asthma needs an inhaler, then they are having a medical emergency. I know it’s done for dramatic effect, but there is no sport or race worth pushing oneself to the point of creating a preventable medical emergency. When I read this in Overcomer, I immediately wondered how this was going to be a plot point and how she was going to have to stop running and—nope—it’s just there for drama, but in real life this is dangerous and irresponsible.
Third, and this is the biggest one. John takes Hannah to see her birth father and hides it from Hannah’s legal guardian. Hannah’s grandmother, who has legal custody of Hannah, has told Hannah that her father is dead. It becomes expressly clear that she does not want Hannah to meet her father. Despite this, when John discovers that his mentor is Hannah’s father, he tells Hannah and takes her to meet him.
I cannot express how unethical and possibly criminal this would be in real life. It undoes any good the plot had done. I was waiting for a conversation with the grandma, for there to be an internal conflict in her character as she wrestles with a literal demon from her past, but nope. Coach knows best.
It’s a deeply concerning plot point that I just can’t endorse in any way. So, credit to Fabry, he put forth a compelling narrative that faithfully and accurately reflects the source material. Unfortunately for him, the source material is just…not good in a technical perspective and dangerous in a real-life perspective. Other Kendrick Brothers outings may have been just as hokey, but I could at least enjoy them for what they were. This one falls way short.