A staged production of “Life of Pi” held its North American premiere last night at Harvard's American Repertory Theater. For the next month, viewers can enjoy watching the gripping and philosophical tale play out through an inventive theatrical performance utilizing intricate puppets.
“Life of Pi” was a hit in the UK’s West End, based on the acclaimed 2001 novel about a young man lost at sea with only a few zoo animals to accompany him as he drifts across the Pacific. It will be heading to Broadway in March.
The book’s author, Yann Martel, joined Arun Rath for a conversation about this new adaptation of his work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: Thanks so much for being here — and what an exciting adaptation of your book!
Yann Martel: It is indeed. It's a tricky thing to adapt a novel to the stage or to the screen. And so I'm very happy with this production.
Rath: I want to go all the way back because you've reflected in a very fascinating way about the transformation of your work now through multiple media. And going back to the novel “Life of Pi,” it was a piece of literary fiction — not the sort of thing that necessarily you would expect to get picked up for a screenplay and made into a blockbuster film. When that happened, what was going through your head, being pretty much a writer's writer at that point?
Martel: Well, I wondered: How are they going to do this? And I don't just mean in terms of the production — how they would pull it off — because, yes, you know that Hollywood has money and amazing special effects. But nonetheless, I said, “This is going to be a very complicated production.”
Because I remember being told that when you make a movie, there's three things you don't want. You don't want to film with children, because you can only work them so many hours a day. You don't want to film with animals, because you can't control animals. And you don't want to film at sea because water moves — and it sank the movie Waterworld, for example. It's very difficult filming at sea because everything moves. And here's a story that combines all three of them. So there was that: just technically, how would they pull it off?
But also — and this has been this has been an ongoing concern — it's actually a very tricky story to adapt. It's quite deceptive as to what works in “Life of Pi.” Despite the fact that it has this garland of of adventurousness and action, it's actually a quite a domestic drama. It's basically two characters in a confined space who don't even talk.
The book, because someone just asks of you to imagine, it pulls you along. But once you get to something more literal, more concrete before the eyes as plays and movies are, it was much trickier making it work, turning it into something that pulls you along for two hours. So I'm very happy at how Max Webster and Simon Friend and Lolita Chakrabarti — the adapter — how they pulled it off, and I'm very grateful to them for that.
Rath: I was fascinated to read — in a piece you wrote originally in the Sunday Times, it made me think about when I did TV for the first time after doing radio for many years. And the first thing I realized was, if you rely on narration, it's a total failure of visual storytelling. And that was really hard to figure out!
Martel: Absolutely. I mean, one very obvious thing is, in “Life of Pi,” it's told from the first person — from the perspective of Pi. And Pi never describes himself. It's always him looking out and you as the reader, you're invited to sit next to him, like you're in an Uber drive. And the driver is driving, and the driver is Pi, and you're next to him — looking and seeing what he sees. You're looking out with him, as if you were him.
Well, in a movie, I suppose a sort of slightly tiresome experimental movie could have the camera be Pi's eyes and he's always looking out, and when he turns his head to the right, the camera moves to the right. But that device would get tiresome quite quickly. So the only other point of view is that the camera's on the outside looking at Pi, which completely inverts the point of view that you have in the story. And sure enough, in the play, as in the movie, you spend two hours looking at PI, which is the complete inversion of the story in the book. So the adaptation demands constant changes like that to make it fit, to make it work.
Rath: For the theatrical version, you go into creating a theatrical version with two versions of this work already existing. So did both of those inform what became the play?
Martel: Well, to get the full answer to that, you'd have to ask Lolita Chakrabarti, the adapter. In fact, I'm not sure she's even seen the movie — which she may have done deliberately not to be influenced by it because that's, after all, another adaptation. So she based herself on the novel.
We had a very good conversation early on where I sort of explained the book from my perspective, which of course, is only one perspective. Sure, I wrote the book, but any work of art is a co-creation between the creator and the person who takes it in. And it's that synergy between the two that really makes the ultimate reaction, the ultimate product, let's say. And so I had a conversation with her, I sort of described the book as I saw it. And then, of course, she brought her own experience. As a woman of color from England, it's very interesting to me how she's diversified the play — the story — even more than I did.
Here I am, a white man from North America, and I'm telling the story of a brown-skinned boy from India who is religious in ways I am not. So already there, there's a jump into an “otherness” that I am not. Well, Lolita's gone even further now, diversifying the cast. Essentially, we have a story now which I love, because it's essentially a play with, you know, no white men in it. It's all women and people of visible minorities. And I love that diversity being broad, because that's what the world is. The “Life of Pi” is certainly about opening yourself to the other, and here's a play that exemplifies that not only in the story but into the very way it is produced.
So we had a good conversation, and then I let her run with it. You have to trust each person's expertise. And Lolita’s very able, so she created the script. And then Simon Friend, the producer, and Max Webster, the director, worked on it and brought it to what it is and what is opening now in Boston.
"Here I am working this novel entirely on my own and thinking, 'Well, this does not will clearly not have commercial appeal, but whatever, I need to tell this story.' So I did, and I was gobsmacked that it did so well."Yann Martel, author of “Life of Pi”
Rath: And you noted that, in a process, in addition to being so collaborative, it was fascinating to read that the role of the writer is, again, more ascendant than it is in Hollywood.
Martel: Yes, that I didn't know. After all, words are free. We all have access to words, and writing them down — if you have a paper and pencil — is practically free. But making a movie, making images, is extraordinarily expensive. And therefore, in Hollywood generally, the screenwriter is somewhat lower in the pecking order. Because a change of script can run very easily, whereas a change of something “filmic” is much more complicated to pull off. Whereas in theater I was happy to discover that it's kind of the opposite. The words direct the action, and I noticed that Lolita was much higher up in that pecking order, and Max consulted with her much more than I expected. And so I was very happy to see that. And in fact, I think the people who've read the book will see the book informs the play in ways that doesn't quite inform the movie as much.
Rath: Interesting. And it must be remarkable to have put this work out there and have had both of these generations, the movie and the play, as it were. Did you have any idea that there was all this in this work?
Martel: No, not at all. When I wrote “Life of Pi,” I'd produced two books that had had good reviews, but very small sales. That's essentially the world of literary fiction. And here I was taking on writing the story that it features religion and zoology, animals — neither dripping with irony. I have no interest whatsoever in organized religion, but in “Life of Pi,” I was not interested in poking away at organized religion. I was taking on a character who has a religious faith, which in Canada — I'm Canadian — and Canada in many ways is a very secular, liberal, Humanist society. The role of religion, organized or not, is very peripheral now. So basically, your average novel reader in Toronto is not typically a religious person. And here I am having a character who's dripping with faith.
And then, also, it features animals and a zookeeper and a zoo. And most urban people once again misunderstand zoos and think of them as being cages for animals — which, in a good zoo, is not what they are. They're still a compromise, but they're not jails. The animals are not bursting to get out of there. They make peace with their environment. And here's this novel taking on both, and I saying, “What a risk, no one's going to read this.” And also, I was young, I had roommates, I had no money. And here I am working this novel entirely on my own and thinking, “Well, this does not will clearly not have commercial appeal, but whatever, I need to tell this story.” So I did, and I was gobsmacked that it did so well. And I can't believe that 20 years on, I'm still talking “Life of Pi” — for which I'm eternally grateful. It's been a wonderful story to talk about.
And I think its appeal lies not just in the the appearance of it — that it's a sort of adventure story in the Pacific with these animals. I think it's fundamentally the question that it asks about: what is reality, how do we interpret reality, the subjectivity of reality. That reality, of course, is to some extent what it is — but it's even more to us as individuals, how we interpret it, what we make of it. And the role the imagination can be in interpreting reality. I think it's all sort of philosophical questions that the story asks that has so appealed to readers. I think that's why it did so well. Whether you like the book or not, it was one that did very well in book clubs because there was a lot to talk about. There's many very good books which people have nothing to say, but just that it's a good book. I liked it and they don't have much to say. In “Life of PI,” I've noticed people have lots to say about it — for good and for bad, and it goes both ways. So it's a great book to talk about. And I think that's why it did well as a book.
Rath: Yann Martel, the trajectory of this work is as wonderful as the work itself, and it's been such a delight speaking with you about it. Thank you.
Martel: Thank you, Arun.
The staged production of “Life of Pi” is now playing at Harvard's American Repertory Theater.