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First, it was M. Night Shyamalan. Then, Alfonso Cuaron, and later, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Nearly a decade later, it is director Ang Lee who leads an international cast of previously unknown faces to realize the long-awaited film adaptation of Life of Pi, the 2001 best-seller and Man Booker Prize winner by Yann Martel that has sold more than 7 million copies.
The highly anticipated film kicked off the 50th annual New York Film Festival with a series of screenings Friday, a proud moment for Martel.
“It’s a big privilege to see that huge theater, that vast room full and Life of Pi starting up,” Martel tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And then to realize that at 9 o’clock, again it was full. It’s a thrill.”
Although the shipwrecked adventures of a spiritual Indian teen (played by Suraj Sharma) and a wild Bengal tiger originated from Martel’s imagination, the author made sure that his involvement in the film production was minimal.
“Early on, I made very clear that I was willing to do whatever they wanted me to do and that I was stepping back because I know my limits,” says Martel, 49. “I’m a novelist; it’s my business to write words and construct novels, not to make movies — as much as I love movies. I grew up watching movies.”
Fox 2000 purchased the film rights to the book in 2003, and after executives Tom Rothman and Elizabeth Gabler entertained the idea of working with various directors, Lee signed on in early 2009.
“I was confident that he would make a great movie, so I stepped back,” Martel explains. “They flew me over to New York to meet Ang — we had a long talk together, and twice, I read his screenplay and gave him detailed feedback. And after that, they took it and they ran.
“I think the worst kind of thing when you’re trying to do something is to have some author saying, ‘Well, wait a second — you didn’t do it this way, you should do it that way,’ ” he continues. “I gave my feedback: ‘You’re the filmmaker, you’re a brilliant filmmaker. I trust you. You do what you want.’ “
He adds: “The funny thing is that with that attitude, he ended up doing a movie that was incredibly faithful to the book — the storyline but also the idea, the intent. To trust him that it’s a better story, and sure enough, he pulled off a brilliant movie.”
Martel always saw Life of Pi as inherently “cinematic” while writing the book and hoped that a film would be able to capture that aspect — someday.
“The novel is full of contrast colors: the blue ocean, the white lifeboat, the brown boy, the orange and black tiger, the green island. And India is very visual. In some ways, it was a very visual novel, but I never imagined it before, for technical reasons. And also, usually, novels are so dense — so much in a novel that it’s quite difficult to translate it successfully to the screen.”
Lee practically waited years for 3D technology and computer-generated imagery to evolve so that his vision could be realized on the big screen.
“I like how they lingered on India,” Martel says. “They could’ve hurried through that and focused on the Pacific. It’s so visually stunning. It’s rare to have India portrayed in cinema — despite it being an economy of a billion people, it’s quite rare to have it shown in the screen as it is. And even the religious stuff, the Hinduism, it’s very rare that you see that. So I was very delighted that they made that choice.”
While watching the premiere screening, Martel was surprised to hear the sound of the words he’d written.
“One thing that did [surprise me] in a sense that I had sort of forgotten — it’s funny, because I’d written the book — is how Indian it is,” says the Spain-born son of a Canadian diplomat, who spent more than a year in India. “Because when you read a book, you don’t read accents. You don’t read [Leo] Tolstoy with all the people speaking with Russian accents; you just read it with your own voice, your own accent. I suppose readers slightly forget that. Of course, the movie has to be faithful to that reality. So it was very, very Indian throughout — you have Irrfan Khan narrating with his Indian accent. The Indian-ness of it struck me, and I was very happy for that.”
Martel also was satisfied to see a neutral portrayal of spirituality onscreen.
“The fact that Pi practiced three religions is presented in the sense that one moves on,” he says. “It’s a subtle point that [the book] makes, in fact, that many people don’t get: the idea of tolerance. Not all people who are religious are evangelical crazies, not all Christians are all American evangelical weirdos who want to go out there and kill doctors who do abortions. Or on the other hand, not all Muslims are people who have bombs strapped to their chests and are ready to pull the strings and blow themselves up.
“There is this middle ground of people who want to entertain a transcendental vision of existence that is completely nonviolent and also not judgmental,” he continues. “And those, you rarely hear from; you tend to hear from the extremes. To see that portrayed, I’d be curious to see how some people react to that — not so much in the U.S. but how it goes down in India, for example.”
One difference Martel did note was the portrayal of Pi’s fellow lifeboat passenger, the big cat called Richard Parker.
“In the novel, he remains a true tiger, as in there’s never a notion of friendship. They definitely have a relationship; that’s why Pi doesn’t leave him on the island. But it always remains one of coexistence laced with dominance and fear and caution. In the movie, that scene where … the tiger is very close to death — as you would expect, all barriers go down, it is approachable, and you can actually pet a tiger’s head. For the sake of the movie, it created a slight illusion of a bond of friendship. The movie played a little bit more with that. In the book, it remains firmly a wild animal that’s not there to become a friend to anyone. It’s just a wild animal; it has its own rules.”
Despite the ending of both the book and the movie, Martel reaffirms that Richard Parker is more than just a tiger.
“As a protagonist, it’s subject to multiple interpretations. Some people could say it’s Pi himself. Some people can, in a sense, say it’s like God — we’re afraid of God, but he brings comfort and he keeps us going, which is what the tiger did. There’s multiple interpretations possible — I’ll leave that to readers.”
Life of Pi opens Nov. 21.
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