Canadian author Yann Martel won the Booker prize for the wildly successful “Life of Pi” in 2002, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film of the same name 10 years later.
“Life of Pi” is the story of Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, who survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The fantasy adventure novel is considered an epic meditation on spirituality and mythology.
The book has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide, but due to its complex narrative, aquatic setting and deadly animal as a lead character, the story had been deemed impossible to adapt to the screen. "I never thought about it being filmed,” Martel told the Daily Mail late last year.
But Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) rose to the challenge, casting an unknown Indian boy, Suraj Sharma, as the star of the 3D masterpiece.
The film was an enormous box office success. As of March 24, 2013, Life of Pi had grossed an estimated $122,527,000 in North America, and $481,857,111 overseas, for a worldwide total of $604,384,111. In China, it brought in $ 90.3 million at the box office. “Life of Pi” earned 11 Oscar nominations and won four awards, including Best Director for Lee.
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"I'm very happy with Ang's adaptation." Martel told IBTimes China, describing Lee as a “virtuoso visual poet”: “It's faithful to the spirit of the book," he said.
Read on for more of our exclusive interview with the celebrated author.
IBTimes: You are a Westerner. What inspired you to write this story based in India involving philosophical and religious discussion?
Yann Martel: What inspired me was a trip to India. I had first gone there in the mid-1990s, backpacking for six months, and I had been dazzled by the country. Over three hundred languages are spoken in India, dozens of ethnic groups rub shoulders, all the world's religions are practiced there, and so on. It's an incredibly diverse country, yet it somehow holds together. Better than that: It's the world's largest democracy. To me, India is all of life in one place at one time. A place like that is inevitably a fountain of stories. All stories are possible in India, including “Life of Pi.”
IBTimes: Your book is famous for its density. Do you think a two-hour-film can capture what you describe in the novel?
Yann Martel: Absolutely. Words are actually very poor at describing objects, especially objects with which the viewer is not familiar. A sea anchor, for example, or a solar still, or the configuration of the raft or of the lifeboat or the raft, or the island -- there are dozens of examples in the novel of things that are hard to describe that I had to describe. A movie, by the inherent fact of being visual, instantly makes all these objects comprehensible to the viewer. What we see we believe and understand. So in some ways the movie makes the telling of the tale easier.
IBTimes: Do you think Ang Lee’s adaptation reflects the original meaning of your book? Were you surprised by his interpretation at all? In the movie, Pi has a lover who does not appear in the book. How do you feel about the added character?
Yann Martel: A movie has to stand on its own. It speaks its own language. So a novel can't just be adapted literally. It has to be translated to the screen. This will involve deletions and compressions, and invention. I have no problem with the added love interest in the movie. It allows us to see Indian dancing, something rarely seen in American cinema, besides seeing a lovely young woman.
IBTimes: You wrote in the book, “This is a story to make you believe in God.” You also spent a number of chapters to discuss the religious issues. However, Ang Lee said in an interview that in the movie religion is not emphasized, but the way of telling a story is more important. What do you think about the role of religion in “Life of Pi”?
Yann Martel: Every reader of every book has his or her interpretation of it. And that's fine. Any work of art is half a thing. It is completed when it meets its viewer/reader/spectator. It's in that meeting between the imaginations of the creator and the viewer/reader/spectator that art becomes whole. So of course Ang would have a different reading of my novel from mine, as he would with many other spectators. Each of us has a different experience of life, and so a different experience of art. This is reflected in Ang's movie. It truly is his movie, reflecting his sensibility and his reading of the novel. That is his artistic prerogative, since he put so much of himself in making the movie.
IBTimes: At the end of the book, you raise an interesting question. Which is your real point: Reality is so cruel that we escape into fantasy, or that people choose not to believe in miracles?
Yann Martel: You are asking me to interpret the book for you. That's not my job. I wrote it, but you read it. So you must decide for yourself what the "real point" is. Is Pi's story with animals nothing but a fabrication invented to deal with a reality that is too cruel? Or is it the truth, but wasted on investigators who are prisoners of reason?
A system will always defend and justify itself. Reason, which is a system, will always say that one should be reasonable. A reasonable question will always seek a reasonable answer. So perhaps it's the case that Pi invents the story without animals to satisfy the rationalistic impulses of the investigators.
Anyone who has suffered wants their suffering to be accepted, so Pi is willing to invent another story, the one without animals, even though it's not the true one, because he wants the investigators to say, "We accept your suffering." But again, every reader must decide for himself/herself what it all means.
IBTimes: Do you think you will work with Ang Lee again?
Yann Martel: That depends entirely on him. I was deeply honored that he directed the movie adaptation of “Life of Pi” and moved at what a brilliant job he did. But I've asked myself if he would take on another one of my books. That sounds like expecting to win the lottery twice.
IBTimes: How would you describe Ang Lee’s work ethic?
Yann Martel: Ang Lee is one of the hardest working men on earth. He works and works and works, throwing every ounce of himself into his movies. And he enjoys every aspect of filmmaking, so he also involves himself at every stage of production. In addition, he's brilliant. He's very smart and very intuitive. He knows what will work in a movie and moves heaven and earth to make it happen in front of the camera.
IBTimes: “Life of Pi” marks the second time your work has been adapted to the screen. (Martel’s 1993 short story, “Manners of Dying,” was made into a film of the same name in 2004.) Do you expect to cross over any further into film?
Yann Martel: I love movies, always have. I grew up on books, but also on movies. But I know my place. I am a writer. I love words and building sentences and adding one sentence to another, like one brick next to another, until, like a cathedral in the mist, a novel emerges. It's a thrilling process, and the one that I love most. So I'm happy to be a bit of a participant in movie-making, but no more. I'm really myself when I'm writing. Just as Ang Lee is fully himself when he is making a movie. To each his own, including among artists.
IBTimes: Did the success of “Life of Pi,” the movie, boost sales of your book?
Yann Martel: Yes. People who've never heard of the book see the movie, are intrigued by it and then go and buy the book. The process works the other way too: People who loved the book go to see the movie.
IBTimes: Do you agree that the book “Life of Pi” is an adventure story like “The Old Man and the Sea” or “Robinson Crusoe?” What are the differences between your book and other adventure books? Who are your favorite novelists?
Yann Martel: A comparison is always approximate. Yes, “Life of Pi,” like “The Old Man and the Sea,” takes place at sea, and like “Robinson Crusoe,” it involves a shipwreck. But Hemingway and Dafoe had different intentions from mine. I think readers should read a novel without seeking to compare it but only to take it on its own terms.
IBTimes: Could you tell our Chinese audience a bit more about your project “What is Steven Harper Reading”? It’s said you sent a book to Steven Harper every two weeks -- which books have you sent to him? Did Steven Harper respond to you? Did Steven Harper read the books you sent to him?
Yann Martel: For four years I sent the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every two weeks. I sent him novels, plays, collections of poetry, graphic novels, children's books, the odd work of non-fiction. Their authors were from everywhere: Canada, the U.S., Europe -- and China. With each book I included a letter in which I explained why he might profit from reading the enclosed book.
The purpose of my guerilla book club was to remind the prime minister, a man who doesn't read, what the artful word can do, how stories can help us understand who we are and why we are. I don't care if ordinary people don't read. But once someone has power over me, then what they read does matter because in what they read we will guess where their dreams come from. I don't know how a man who never reads literature gets a feel for other people. The best way to explore another country, another culture, another being, is through literature. Literature makes us travel. To take an example that relates to China: Pearl Buck. It is through Pearl Buck and her “Good Earth” trilogy that many Westerners first discovered China.
Yes, of course, her books are now dated, but at the time they were a sympathetic and insightful portrayal of China. Literature does this all the time: makes the reader enter the skin, walk in the shoes, live the life of its character. If you never travel that way, then you are limited to the narrow little life that you live (unless you've had the great luck of traveling widely and doing so with your eyes and your mind and your heart open). Which is why it matters that people in power read. Only in reading widely will they learn beyond the narrow confines of their own experience. If they don't read, they will fall back on the recourse of the ignorant: ideology.