‘Life of Pi’ makes its North American theatrical debut at Cambridge

A staging of “Life of Pi” had its North American premiere last night at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. For the next month, viewers will enjoy watching the gripping and philosophical tale unfold through an inventive stage performance using intricate puppets.

“Life of Pi” was a UK West End hit, 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 headed to Broadway in March.

The book’s author, Yann Martel, joined Arun Rath for a conversation about this new adaptation of his work. The following is a slightly edited transcript.

ArunRath: Thanks so much for being here – and what an exciting adaptation of your book!

Yann Martel: It really is. It’s hard to adapt a novel to stage or screen. And so I’m very happy with this production.

Rath: I want to go back in time because you have very fascinatingly reflected on the transformation of your work now across multiple media. And going back to the novel “Life of Pi,” it was a piece of literary fiction, not the sort of thing you’d necessarily expect to be picked up for a screenplay and made into a blockbuster movie. When that happened, what was going through your mind, basically being a writer’s writer at that point?

Hammer: Well, I was wondering: how are they going to do that? And I don’t mean just in terms of the production — how they were going to make it — because, yeah, you know Hollywood has money and amazing special effects. However, I said, “This is going to be a very complicated production.”

Because I remember being told that when you make a film, there are 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 them. And you don’t want to film in the sea because the water moves – and it sank the film Waterworld, for example. It’s very difficult to shoot in the sea because everything moves. And here is a story that unites them all three. So there was this: just technically, how were they going to pull it off?

But also – and this has been a constant concern – it’s actually a very difficult story to adapt. It’s quite deceptive as to what works in “Life of Pi”. Despite having this wreath of adventurousness and action, it’s actually quite a domestic drama. It’s basically two characters in a tight space who don’t even speak.

The book, because someone only asks you to imagine, drags you along. But once you got to something more literal, more concrete in front of your eyes like plays and movies are, it was a lot more complicated to make it work, to turn it into something that drags you along for two hours. So I’m very happy with how Max Webster and Simon Friend and Lolita Chakrabarti — the adapter — how they’ve done that, and I’m very grateful to them for that.

Rath: I was fascinated by reading: in a piece you originally wrote in the Sunday Times, it got me thinking about when I first did TV after doing radio for many years. And the first thing I realized was, if you’re relying on storytelling, it’s a total failure of visual storytelling. And it was really hard to understand!

Hammer: Absolutely. I mean, one very obvious thing is that in “Life of Pi” it’s told in the first person, from Pi’s point of view. And Pi never describes himself. It’s always him looking out and you as the reader, are invited to sit next to him, as if you were on an Uber drive. And the driver is driving, and the driver is Pi, and you are next to him – looking and seeing what he sees. You are looking out with him, as if you were him.

Well, in a movie, I guess some sort of boring experimental movie might have the camera as Pi’s eyes and he’s always looking out, and when he turns his head to the right, the camera pans to the right. But that device would get boring pretty quickly. So the only other point of view is that the camera is outside looking at Pi, which completely reverses the point of view you have in the story. And indeed, in the play, as in the film, you spend two hours watching PI, which is the complete reversal of the story in the book. So adaptation requires constant changes like this to make it fit, to make it work.

Rath: For the stage version, go create a stage version with two versions of this work already existing. So both informed what has become of the game?

Hammer: Well, to get a complete answer, you should ask Lolita Chakrabarti, the adapter. In fact, I’m not sure if she’s even seen the film, which she may have done deliberately not to be influenced by it because, after all, it’s another adaptation. So she relied on the novel.

We had a great conversation early on where I explained the book from my point of view, which of course is just a point of view. Sure, I wrote the book, but any artwork is a co-creation between the creator and the person who receives it. And it’s that synergy between the two that really creates the final reaction, the final product, shall we say. And so I had a conversation with her, I described the book as I saw it. And then, of course, she brought her own experience. As a black woman from England, she is very interesting to me how she has diversified the show – the story – even more than me.

Here I am, a white man from North America, and I’m telling a story about a dark-skinned Indian boy who is religious in a way that I am not. So already there, there is a leap into an “otherness” that I am not. Well, Lolita has gone even further now by diversifying the cast. Essentially, we now have a story that I love, because it’s essentially a comedy with, you know, no white men in it. They are all women and people from visible minorities. And I love that the diversity is wide, because that’s the way the world is. The “Life of Pi” is certainly about opening up to the other, and here is a play that exemplifies this not only in the story but also in the very way in which it is produced.

So we had a good conversation, and then I just let it slide. You have to trust each person’s experience. And Lolita is very skilled, 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 she’s opening now in Boston.

“So, I’m working on this novel entirely by myself and I think, ‘Well, this is clearly not going to have commercial appeal, but whatever, I have to tell this story.’ So I did, and was amazed that it worked so well.

Yann Martel, author of “Life of Pi”

Rath: And did you notice that, in a process, in addition to being so collaborative, it was fascinating to read that the writer’s role is, again, more in the ascendancy than it is in Hollywood.

Hammer: Yes, I didn’t know that. After all, words are free. We all have access to words and writing them down, if you have pencil and paper, is practically free. But making a film, making images, is extraordinarily expensive. And so, in Hollywood in general, the screenwriter is a little bit further down the pecking order. Because a change of script can be done very easily, while a change of something “filmic” is much more complicated to achieve. Whilst in the theater I was delighted to find that it is quite the opposite. Words direct action, and I noticed that Lolita was much higher up that pecking order, and Max consulted with her much more than I expected. And so I was very happy to see that. And indeed, I think people who have read the book will see that the book informs the show in ways that the film doesn’t inform quite as much.

Rath: Interesting. And it must be extraordinary to have released this work and to have had both of these generations, the film and the comedy, so to speak. Did you have any idea that there was all this in this job?

Hammer: No not at all. When I wrote “Life of Pi,” I had produced two books that had good reviews but very poor sales. This is essentially the world of literary fiction. And here I was starting to write the story which features religion and zoology, animals, neither dripping with irony. I have no interest in organized religion, but in “Life of Pi” I was not interested in making fun of organized religion. I was assuming 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, whether organized or not, is now very peripheral. So basically, your average novel reader in Toronto is typically not a religious person. And here I am with a character dripping with faith.

And then, it also features animals, a zookeeper and a petting zoo. And most urban people once again misunderstand zoos and think they are animal cages – which, in a good zoo, is not what they are. They are still a compromise, but they are not prisons. The animals aren’t bursting to get out of there. They make peace with their environment. And here’s this novel that tackles both, and I’m like, “What a risk, no one’s going to read it.” Besides, I was young, I had roommates, I had no money. And here I’m working on this novel entirely by myself and thinking, “Well, this is clearly not going to have commercial appeal, but whatever, I have to tell this story.” So I did, and was amazed that it worked so well. And I can’t believe that 20 years later, I’m still talking about “Life of Pi” – for which I’m eternally grateful. It was a wonderful story to talk about.

And I think its appeal isn’t just in the looks – that it’s kind of a Pacific adventure story with these animals. I think that’s basically the question it asks: 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 do with it. And the role that imagination can play in interpreting reality. I think it’s all kinds of philosophical questions that the story poses that appeal to readers so much. I think that’s why it worked so well. Whether you like the book or not, it was one that did really well in book clubs because there was so much to talk about. There are many great books that people have nothing to say, just that it’s a good book. I liked it and don’t have much to say. In “Life of PI,” I’ve noticed that people have a lot to say about it, for better or for worse, and it goes both ways. So it’s a great book to talk about. And I think that’s why it worked well as a book.

Rath: Yann Martel, the trajectory of this work is as wonderful as the work itself, and it has been a real pleasure to talk to you about it. Thank you.

Hammer: Thanks Arun.

The staging of “Life of Pi” is now on stage at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater.

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