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Extended Interview: Author Yann Martel and how 'Life of Pi' became a Hollywood film

Life Of Pi

Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker must rely on each other to survive an epic journey in "Life of Pi."

This interview aired on KPCC's Take Two.

Life of Pi was a best-seller when it was published 11 years ago – and like just about every other best-seller, it caught the eye of film producers. But not every great book can become a great film, or maybe not even a film at all. KPCC’s Patt Morrison spoke with Yann Martel, the author of the novel, about how his book finally made the leap from the page to the screen. 

Since its publishing in 2001, Martel’s Life of Pi has become one of the most beloved novels in recent memory. It has been published in more than 40 languages, and won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. The book tells the story of Pi, a 16-year-old who is stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with a Bengal Tiger after being shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean.

Part of the story is sheer survival, as Pi must figure out not only how to stay alive in the middle of the ocean, but also how to survive at such close quarters with the tiger. The other part of the story revolves around the spiritual explorations of the young Pi, who considers himself a student of many religions. 

Martel is a Canadian novelist who has spent time around the globe studying philosophy and religious texts, as well as writing. In a PBS interview in 2002, Martel discussed the motivation and inspiration for Life of Pi, saying: "I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small 's' but sort of with a capital 'S' – something that would direct my life." Through all of his own studies and existential wanderings, Martel seems to put forth some kind of answer, or at least direction, with the groundbreaking novel.

Interview Excerpts:

On his own contributions and involvement in the film:

“In terms of the overall vision, I quite early on decided that I had to let go. I didn’t want to be one of these annoying writers who, you know, barks and cajoles with emails, and saying I want you to do it this way or that way, because, after all, I’m a writer, I’m not a filmmaker. And because I trusted Ang Lee, I let go and I said you make the movie you want, and I won’t bother you. I’ll help you to the extent that you want me to help, and when you don’t want my help that’s fine, I’ll just step back. Because after all, to him will go all the praise and all the condemnation for this movie. It is his, you know, it’s based on my book, but it really is his movie, so I didn’t want to get in the way of him making his movie, I respected his artistic integrity.”

On the challenges of shooting Life of Pi:

“Generally, the adapting of a novel to the screen entails cutting away great chunks of that novel, and sometimes that works well and sometimes it doesn’t. The reason I thought there was a big hitch to seeing it as a movie was just the technical challenges. It’s always a great challenge to shoot on water, and of course this one a good chunk of it takes place on water in the Pacific.”

On if Martel was surprised that filmmakers were interested in making a Life of Pi film adaptation:

“I’ve noticed, in my experience, Hollywood is kind of like a vacuum cleaner, looking for stories constantly. There was something about it I guess that attracted Hollywood. So quite early on, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights, and then took its sweet time to get made, because of all the challenges [in shooting the film]. If I were a filmmaker, I wouldn’t have [made a film based on Life of Pi], just because of all of the challenges.”

On the differences between Life of Pi and its film adaption:

“I guess you have to take the novel and turn it inside out. I mean, in one very obvious way for example, in the novel I never describe what Pi looks like because it didn’t matter to me what he looked like, whether he was tall or short, plump or skinny, is completely irrelevant. I never describe him because it’s irrelevant, and in Life of Pi, in the book, we see events through his eyes. In a sense, the reader settles in behind Pi’s eyes, like you would a passenger in a car and, you know, he’s driving, and you see what he sees and he drives. So in that sense it was very interior and you look out. Well obviously in the movie, the gaze is otherwise, the gaze is outside and we are looking at Pi. So the direction of the gaze was very different. We are no longer seeing it from Pi’s perspective, and, in a sense, from this sort of omniscient perspective. So that changes things. So what you have to do in adapting a novel to the screen is, in a sense, translate the voice. You have to sort of retell the story by the means of cinema.”

On how fans of the novel will react to the movie:

“I’m not sure how readers will react to it. I suspect they will like it. The problem is they shouldn’t compare, of course, because it would be like comparing two languages. It would be like saying, you know, how is it said in English, how is it said in French, and comparing the two. They are different languages, so I would suggest they are companion pieces. If you like the book, check out the movie. And, you know, in some things you will be very pleased. “

On the differences between film and books:

“In the novel, Part 2 starts with the ship sinking. [In the book] it’s relatively concise because words are not that good at describing physical events. Words are very good at describing emotions and some primary, simple visual things. But something complex as a ship sinking, you don’t want to start getting out too many complicated metaphors because it gets in the way. So the sinking of the ship in the book is fairly short. In the movie, it’s this extraordinary event. It’s stupendous. The way the ship is done, you are on that ship. It’s extraordinarily vivid. So there’s one scene where the language of cinema conveyed very powerfully, not only visually but emotionally, an event that’s key in the novel, but in the novel is done fairly quickly because words are weaker at conveying that. So I would suggest to people to try not to compare too much, and just see them as companion pieces.” 

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