Talk With Yann
Neatby-Timlin Theatre, U of S
The trajectory of Yann Martel's breakthrough novel Life of Pi has been nothing less than stunning ever since its 2011 release, winning the 2002 Man Booker Prize (and multiple other awards), selling millions of copies worldwide and making Martel an international celebrity.
The film version of Pi, on the other hand, has had bumpier road. Although Hollywood snatched up the rights to the story quickly, finding the right director proved difficult. Names both celebrated (Alfonso Cuaron, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and not so much (M. Night Shyamalan), were all attached at one point or another, but all eventually bowed out
Finally, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) took up the project — and the result is a film that’s being hailed as a “gorgeous and accomplished rendering.” Little wonder that Martel was in an excellent mood during a recent interview about the screen adaption of his best-seller.
PLANET S: First off, how do you feel about the second life that your book is going through now that there's all this buzz about the movie?
YANN MARTEL: I feel great about that. Often what happens when a movie comes out is that people are reminded of [the book], and sales of the book go up, which means more people read it. So you're right, it does give it a second life, which is great, because a story that was once only a book is now a book and film. And it's rare also that the movie so affects the book that people can't go back to the book and read it independently. The worst that will come is that the movie will affect how people imagine Pi.
PS: Were you afraid the integrity of your work would be compromised in the film version?
YM: Not really. To generalize, people who like a novel have a particular loyalty to it. So let’s say that the movie was an abomination — which it is absolutely not, but let's say it were: what would happen is either that movie would disappear, or the people who love that book would keep the torch of the book going. It's rare that a book suffers because of a bad movie: the author never gets blamed if a bad movie is done based on their book.
In this case, because it's Ang Lee, who is a great director and very sensitive and ambitious, it's a visually ravishing movie that's very faithful to the book — and also different from the book, but that's alright, that's to be expected. You hear of terrible stories of books that languish forever in Hollywood or books that are raped by their movie. That’s definitely not my story.
PS: There are examples like Stephen King, who absolutely hated what Stanley Kubrick did to The Shining. That type of nightmare was never in the back of your mind when the film of Pi began?
YM: The issue there is that the movie is not faithful to the book, but it doesn't mean it's a bad movie. Obviously Kubrick wanted to tell a different story — he didn't tell King's story, he told his own story, and you're right, that's something the author would object to. But the truth is, once Hollywood buys your work they can do what they want with it: Pi is religious, but they could have done a story about a boy escaping Cuba who ends up on a lifeboat with a black panther, and that panther could be a representative of communist totalitarianism. And Pi could’ve been portrayed as not at all religious, but instead as a closet American-Cuban and all he wants is liberty. That could have turned out to be an amazing movie, but I would have asked why they bothered calling it Life of Pi, when it had nothing to do with what I wrote.
That's usually the issue when talking to the writer: they have a vision of their story, but the filmmaker hasn’t stuck to that vision. If you asked me if Life of Pi the movie is perfect, I wouldn't say is: there are things about it that I might’ve done differently, but that’s easy for me to say — I'm not the filmmaker, and I didn't put the four years into it that Ang Lee put in. I respect his artistic integrity. In fact, I said very early on to him, “Take all the liberties you want, make it the movie you want.” That's why I was deliberately minimally involved.
PS: From a writer's perspective, what did you learn about Hollywood and what it's like to get a movie made based on your work?
YM: Well, that’s a complex question. One thing I would say is that a novel can be many movies: Life of Pi is about 330 pages or so, and out of that you could create many movies. You could have an entire movie about a character who practices many religions, [or] the castaway could be an entire movie itself, or it could be an immigrant movie.
Which is not to say that a movie is a derivative product — there’s something very powerful about images. A novel uses a lot of words, which are very soulful products that are black and white on the page but that can create all these images in your mind. A movie uses a lot fewer words, so in some ways it's much more impoverished than a novel, but it has a visual element which a novel can never have. I don’t care how good the writer is, words will never have the visual acuity that a visual image has. The power of cinema is a linkage between images and emotions: the trick is, you don’t want to translate everything that's happening, what you want to translate is the emotion and the voice.
PS: How much involvement did you have with Ang Lee throughout the process?
YM: They flew me to New York and I had supper with him one evening, and then we talked over the phone a few times. I read over the screenplay twice, and I saw him again in Montreal. I have a small cameo in the movie, but as I said, I respected [Lee’s] artistic integrity. Like any great director, he doesn't care to have people telling him what to do. He already had all these Hollywood moguls telling him what to do, so I didn't want to be that pesky author wrapped up in the purity of my work. He had to make his own movie, he had to tell his own story. He didn't need this Canadian author sermonizing him.
PS: It's been over ten years since the publication of Pi, and probably many more since you started writing it. Artists often say they become somewhat detached to their work after time goes by. What's your relationship like now with Life of Pi?
YM: Well I haven’t become detached, because it was a wonderful novel to work on and it all came together really nicely for me. And when it was published, things just kept getting better and better. Remember that Pi is my third book: my first two books sold very little — hundreds of copies — and in the two years before I finishedLife of Pi, my income was six thousand dollars. I lived on very little, but I lived the life of a prince because I was working on this wonderful story. So I'm grateful for everything Pi has brought me, and I'm grateful for even having written it.
You know in a sense — and this is a poor analogy, I suppose — but all these books are my children. Sure, Pi has become better known, and I might even become dismissed as a one-hit wonder, but the other books I'm also delighted in. The one I'm working on right now is as joyous in the writing as Life as Pi was. I'm thankful for everything, and glad that one of my children is doing so well.
PS: Assuming that Pi the movie is a huge success, would you ever consider writing directly for the screen?
YM: No, because a screenplay is just one part of a whole: there's the actors and the director and set designers and a whole bunch of other creators. I'm just not used to that. What I like about writing is that I get to control everything. I'm the director, the set designer, the composer, the makeup artist, the location scout, everything. When you write you do everything — you offer a complete product. I like that, I'm happy doing that and I like being the full parent to the story. I don't particularly want to have joint custody with 10 other parents.