Laura Hillenbrand has bought the Glover Park rowhouse next door to the one where she once holed up in a tiny office, eight hours a day, writing her best-selling book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend." She gets a lot of invitations now, not that her illness -- she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome -- allows her to accept many. And she's done maybe 250 interviews since the book came out in 2001.
Other than that, life hasn't changed much since Hillenbrand's tale of the knobby-kneed horse became a nonfiction phenomenon (it's now on paperback bestseller lists). It took her four years to produce the book, poring over documents, tapes, photographs, newspaper clippings. And, for Hillenbrand, it's still all Seabiscuit, all the time.
And so the e-mail went out to her friends and supporters last week, a gentle reminder that the first of two film versions of Seabiscuit's story is about to air. "American Experience: Seabiscuit" can be seen tonight at 9 on PBS. The television documentary is a precursor to a movie starring Tobey Maguire that is slated to be released in July.
The PBS version compresses Hillenbrand's wonderfully detailed account of the racehorse and the three men who surrounded him -- a half-blind jockey, a trainer who didn't talk much, and an unorthodox owner -- into a 60-minute film. Using old newsreel footage and audiotapes, photographs and re-enactments, producer and director Stephen Ives animates the horse's already fascinating tale in a film that, like the book, should capture an audience far beyond mere racing fans. The only problem with the documentary is its brevity -- those who have read the book will be looking for little details that had to be left on the cutting-room floor.
"It was such a difficult thing for him to fit in all that information, and I'm so impressed with the work that he did," Hillenbrand says. "I really think it's a splendid documentary."
In order to make that work, Ives chose to focus his tale on one character, jockey Red Pollard, whose hardscrabble life mirrored that of the horse he would famously ride. In the end, Pollard -- thanks to injury -- wasn't even aboard Seabiscuit for the horse's most famous race.
"He thought about that for a while," Hillenbrand says of Ives's decision to focus on Pollard. "I thought Red was a good choice. It's such a story of perseverance in the face of hardship. So he embodies the whole story."
Seabiscuit didn't look much like a racehorse, especially next to his arch-rival, War Admiral, the sleek black horse who won the Triple Crown in 1937. His pitiful appearance, temperamental nature and ragtag team made Seabiscuit a classic underdog, a character that captured the mood of Depression-era America. By the time he retired, Seabiscuit was as famous as the president, so famous that 40 million listeners tuned in for the radio broadcast of his legendary race with War Admiral at Pimlico in 1938.
That race is one of the high points of the documentary, as Ives takes advantage of a wide array of footage available from the era to capture the drama of the moment. And for readers of the book, it will be the visuals -- things Hillenbrand wasn't able to include, though she herself watched the films again and again and again -- that add a new dimension to Seabiscuit's saga.
Ives's interest in Seabiscuit began after he read an article Hillenbrand wrote on the subject for American Heritage magazine in 1997 -- an article that led to Hillenbrand's book deal in 1998, and the sale of the film rights.
"It's been a complete surprise," Hillenbrand says of the reaction to her book. "I would have been happy if it sold 5,000 copies."
After having to take a break from any writing because of vertigo -- one of the most debilitating symptoms of her illness -- Hillenbrand says she's now ready to start a new project, but she's keeping the subject secret. And though she won't make it to Los Angeles for the premiere of the movie this summer, she's hoping for a White House screening. Seabiscuit is so popular, it seems, that even the current president is a fan.