A note from novelist Yann Martel

NOV 10, 2022

Originally published by The Sunday Times

Adi Dixit stands on a bed yelling with his arms in the air while Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge

It’s a strange business, adapting a novel. I wrote my novel Life of Pi while living with roommates, sneaking into McGill University’s Redpath Library to do research pretending I was a student because I couldn’t afford the external reader fees and borrowing books on a friend’s friend’s library card (she was a bona fide student), after having done initial research in India while backpacking. I’d published two books previously, a collection of short stories and a novel, which had garnered good reviews and very modest sales (welcome to the world of literary fiction), so my publisher was not huffing with impatience to see my next effort.

That is to say, I wrote Life of Pi in a state of solitude and with not much money. But writing a book costs next to nothing. A computer was my only overhead. After that, it was just words, and words are free. My dollar account was low, but my word account—well, in that department I felt like a billionaire. Such a joy it was, inhabiting a lifeboat, trying to keep myself and my unwieldy companion—a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound Royal Bengal tiger—alive, one word at a time. I spent four and a half years inhabiting the novel. When I finally let it go, I had no idea what fate would await it. Hopefully good reviews and very modest sales.

But the book did far better than I expected. Along came the adaptors. First, Hollywood. Making a movie costs fantastic sums of money and involves hundreds and hundreds of people. That’s strange enough for the hermit-writer. Stranger still is the adaptation process itself. Words, after all, have just that right variable mix of the nebulous and the precise. For example, if I write, “Pi sat at a table”, my intent is precise and you get the picture—but the details are hazy. What does Pi look like? What kind of table? No worries. So long as Pi is sitting at a table, I don’t care what you the reader make him look like or if you choose to make it a table inlaid with mother-of-pearl. When you read, you become the stage designer of the writer’s directions, and the result is a play in your mind, hence the power of words, because you are involved in making them meaningful.

With movies, on the other hand, if Pi sits at a table, you need an incarnated Pi—an actor—and a real table. It’s precise. And whereas words are generally poor at visual description—of a face, for example—words are very strong at making thoughts and ideas crystal clear. But thoughts don’t have a visual component. If Pi is sitting at a table thinking, in the book his thoughts and the table are all of a same piece, verbal, while in a movie we may see Pi and the table, but his thoughts are entirely lost to us except through the device of the voice-over, which can be used only so much. And so the visual adaptation goes, heavy on the visuals, light on the verbal. Some things are gained—it’s amazing seeing the tiger in the lifeboat—and some are lost: the rumination behind why that tiger is in a lifeboat and what it might mean.

The movie was a big travelling circus. I enjoyed it while it was in town. It’s a spectacular visual complement to those who have read the book, while bringing the story in some form to those who have not read it.

When Hollywood was done, the theatrical adaptors came knocking. I passionately believe in the creative risk that artists take, so I was happy to let Simon Friend (the producer) and Max Webster (the director) have a go at it.

In the movie world, the screenwriter is low in the pecking order. After all, if words are cheap and visuals are not, the word-producer will have less say than the image-producer. Not so in the theatre world. I was pleased to discover how much power Lolita Chakrabarti (the scriptwriter) had. Her script ruled the roost. She and I had a good lunch-time conversation early on in the process in which I explained to her what I thought the novel was about. She listened, and then ran with it while I turned to writing my next novel.

Later, I was invited to assist at a week-long workshop in London. With a book, the writer tells the words what to do—when, how—and they do it, right away. With a movie, the director tells everyone what to do—when, how—and they do it, right away. Then there’s theatre. Theatre is Max and a bunch of fine actors sitting around and Max saying, “Why don’t we try this?” and the chairs are moved, the table is spun round, an actor leaps atop, and suddenly we’re at sea just after a shipwreck, with Lolita taking notes. It’s all about collaboration, which, to this hermit-writer, is way too touchy-feely. I’m guessing Max was happy to see me for that week, then even happier to see me go.

I had my place in the process, and it was to stand aside and let the theatre people do their work. I turned to writing my next novel, leaving behind the Pacific Ocean for the Trojan War.

A good thing, because these theatre people have done a corker of a job. I saw the show in Sheffield, pre-Covid, astonished by the ingenuity of the puppetry and set design, transported by the skill of the adaptation and the play of the actors. I laughed when my nephew, age three at the time, said ‘Bananas’ during a moment of silence as the actors were making on-stage bananas float in a sink. I stood with the entire audience in our ovation. What a show it is, with all the simple yet powerful magic of theatre. The words are there—resonant, meaningful, binding—and the visuals are there, their poetry bewitching because it is made right before your eyes. I never imagined that play inside my head, written on those blank pages so many years ago, would make land so beautifully onto a real stage.

And so the journey of that lifeboat across the Pacific continues.

Yann Martel is a Canadian writer. He is the author of a collection of short stories and four novels, most notably Life of Pi, for which he won the 2002 Man Booker Prize.

Originally published by The Sunday Times on November 14, 2021.
Adi Dixit (“Pi”), Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge (“Richard Parker”) in Life of Pi: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

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