This is the full transcript of a piece I did for Kolkata-based magazine Good News Tab on literary-to-cinema adaptations; with a special focus on the Academy Awards and big-scorer, Ang Lee's Life of Pi.
The most recent film by Ang Lee, Life of Pi, is the film of a believer. Adapted from an early 00s book (a literary sensation, a prize-winner) of the same name by Yann Martel, it’s the sort of film which was, for the last ten years or so, as close to getting made as it was to not – several directors were attached to the project, several writers were hired to do drafts, several actors were cast (and even as much as shot their scenes), but much like the journey of the protagonist in the book/film itself, the project didn’t seem any closer to a finish. One could locate interesting parallels between the legendary journeys (journey; that great narrative trope which allows for physical as well as spiritual dislocation) undertaken by the book/film’s hero, Pi-the-sailorman and studio executive Elizabeth Gabler, who through this decade of uncertainty, kept hopes of an eventual adaptation alive. One could extend this analogy further and claim that the production of a film, any film is as much a question of faith as it is of a reason, as much a question of belief as it of pragmatism – like the journey of Pi, the effort involved in finishing a film is a theological epic in itself. And in this case, there are gold coins at the end of both the rainbows: Pi discovers God, Gabler’s film has eleven Oscar nominations.
But then again, Life of Pi is the sort of film the Academy likes. The eighty-five year old institution likes what most eighty-five year olds like: pleasant, comforting grand tales that reassure them of a world full of optimism, generosity of spirit and eventually, light-at-the-end-of-all-tunnels. It is a world where bleak caste and race-related issues disappear entirely or atleast, by the time the film ends, resolve their personal issues amicably. The Academy also doesn’t like films that provide showboating opportunities for a single guy – a film shouldn’t be imbued with the personality of a single star-director, so too much auteurism and what-not is a big no; instead, the institution prefers films which provide a fertile ground for the visible convocation of diverse talent. The film, in order to score big at the Oscars, must feature evidently great cinematography, dialogue that is replete with scene-ending one-liners and majestic monologues, gut-wrenching performances and a story that traverses generations, if not eras. The Academy likes it if it can feel that a lot of people have worked on the film together – the winner of the Best Film at the end should seem like a summation of the night’s ceremony, of all the awarded categories put into a mix that then yields this one single film. Consider this, in the recent past (sample size: last 20 years) films that have won the Best Film trophy include: Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), A Beautiful Mind (2001), The English Patient (1996), Forrest Gump (1994), Schindler’s List (1993), The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
All of these films essentially function on the same performative scale or exist, as it is, on an altogether consistent plane; they feature an overarching evolving narrative, an intriguing premise, a lead protagonist who must undertake an arduous journey (and in the process of reaching his destination, indulge in self-discovery) and a grand hokey statement at the end. Apart from these macro-level systems, most of them also share micro-level similarities: large ensemble casts populated by a just proportion of known and unknown faces, a socio-political debate (gender politics, disability, euthanasia, disease, poverty; all covered) and a story that is narrated through a very literary framing device: the flashback (one guy’s the ancient mariner, the second the poet) . Now, the reason a film like Life of Pi may very well make it at the Academy is because it does not in any way subvert this trend, if anything, it extends it. But that’s fine, not every film or work of art should be a gesture in subversion, to be able to expand a tradition or consummate its promise is in and by itself, a noble aim. And Life of Pi achieves this – it is nothing new and yet, in whatever it does that is old, it is very good. What may also work in the favour of Pi is that, just like all the titles in the long-list above, it is the adaptation of a literary work into the cinema.
Literature and cinema share a peculiar; part-paradoxical, part-synchronous, part-filial relationship, the first being an ancient artform, unalterable and permanent, ink impressed firmly onto the page, that is thought to have reached the end of a period in the first quarter of the 20th century – this is around the same time when cinema would begin to take its first steps as a medium capable of specificity (that is, a unique existence, torn from its aesthetic predecessors in painting, photography and literature, free of loans or debts). A number of commentators around the same time would begin pondering over this matter and contemplate the question of cinema’s existence as a medium capable of its own grammar, its own idioms and through these, its own expression. In her 1925 essay on the cinema entitled, quite simply, The Cinema, author Virginia Woolf observed, ‘For instance, at a performance of Dr. Caligari (author’s note: a 1919 classic of the cinema) the other day a shadow shaped like a tadpole suddenly appeared at one corner of the screen. It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity. For a moment it seemed to embody some monstrous diseased imagination of the lunatic's brain. For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement 'I am afraid'.’
One may say that this is a rather simplistic resolution of the crisis, of the constant tug-of-war between the two media – and yet, for the year of its publication, it is rather remarkable. It is also not entirely false to claim that if anything, film has still not severed entirely its ties with literature – that images all over the world are still employed merely to illustrate text and to only be vehicles of meaning that are propelled, still, by words themselves. Insofar as one may think that cinema’s great ambition should be to tell its stories through only the visible – through visuals, pictures, photos, stills, slideshows, frames, illustrations – and in the case of Life of Pi, through computer-generated imagery, the film exists as an interesting prototype of the crucial differences between the two human forms of art. It frames its story familiarly – one dude with a writer’s block goes to another mysterious guy (Irrfan Khan, grappling in equal measures with an unimportant role and with English) and asks him to tell him this great story that he has heard somewhere he can tell – the second guy launches into an epic flashback which forms the central narrative of the film.
This, as one may recall, is very similar to another film made by a foreign big-name director in India that scored huge at the Oscars; 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. In that film, our lead protagonist appears on a quiz-show and answers each question with extreme dexterity – but this is only a structural-ruse. Actually, each question’s like a portal into his past. We know as an audience that this guy’s only a tea-seller (with impeccable English), so how does he know all these answers? The film volunteers that each question he is asked relates somehow to an incident from his past life, the experience of which he summons to respond to the question. The film is told, therefore, almost entirely in a series of flashbacks and a series of very freaky co-incidences. It is also a great picaresque story, an ode to street-smartness and the virtue of experience – if anyone ever needs to make a case for the street-smart hustlers over the bookworms, this film’s on their team. More crucially to our present discussion, this film too, like Life of Pi, is based on a book: author Vikas Swaroop’s best-seller, Q & A. But there are other similarities in these two Irrfan Khan starrers: in both the films, the sequences which feature wordy tracts, conversations, dialogue exchanges, voiceovers or narrations weigh heavily onto the film. They are heavy-handed, badly played (in no less reason because of the discomfort of most Indian actors with English) and staged unimaginatively. On the other hand, scenes that contain portions of visual splendor and screensaver-beauty (or oddness) are handled with much caution, crafted meticulously and presented with much fervor. This is especially the case with Life of Pi, where the narrative travels back and forth between scenes of the teenager-Pie, shipwrecked in middle of the vast illuminated ocean, stranded on a boat with a CGI tiger and middle-aged Pie, sitting in an average American-living room, living out his life as an average dad of two, husband of one.
One may argue that this contrast is pertinent to the whole idea of the film – that in order to reach a position of eminent and comfortable, almost dull stability in life, this character has to first undergo an arduous journey – but that belies the great proven truth about cinema – great directors can make sequences of ordinariness look spectacular. It’s interesting that when he started out in Taiwan, these chamber-drama types set inside modern tract houses was director Ang Lee’s specialty as well; this is before he moved on to awesome, outwardly spectacular films that eventually made him famous (starting with, perhaps, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). By the time he directs Life of Pi, Lee now spends his skill as a visual stylist entirely on sequences set in the outdoors, in the great open sea – this, he achieves through clever variations in aspect ratios (like a guitarist alternating between effects/ sounds/amplifications, Lee alternates between square and rectangular formats), colour temperatures of his images (the sea is sometimes a honey-coloured warm glow, sometimes a turquoise), emphatic special-effects (the sequence of the shipwreck is overwhelming) and of course, very effective CGI. Claudio Miranda, the DoP on his film is plucked straight from another film with masterful image-manipulation and CGI, another literary adaptation: 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – incidentally, that film featured major sequences with its protagonist stuck in the middle of a sea-typhoon – this, perhaps, may have led to Miranda’s hiring. Pi is anticipated to sweep most of the technical awards at the Oscars and for good reason too.
The film is supposed to be a very faithful adaptation of the Martel’s book – one may assume therefore that the book describes textually all these sequences of nature’s fury and simultaneously, its immense enigma and beauty. In that, Martel’s writing is entirely of the sort that Henry James demanded in the early 20th century from authors when he said that contemporary literature must grow to more visual or atleast, visually imaginable. This is an interesting proposition, for if an author’s work is merely to describe a scene in detail so lucid that it can be visualised by his reader – is the job of the cinema director who then adapts this writing not akin to a police sketch-artist, who translates a vague verbal description by the witness into a visible, material, printable, copy-able form on the page? Is it not his task to expand on this ambition and not undercut the abilities of his own medium, to locate the spirit of a written passage and not its literal meaning and then to film that? One wonders, regardless, of how Martel’s book may have described the sequence of the storm that wrecks the ship or the carnivorous self-devouring island near the end – whether his words could convey the sense of immediate sorrow that permeates the first sequence and danger that permeates the second. Maybe that in fact is the crucial feature of a filmed sequence: its immediacy, its ability to pass one by and already be past in the time that a reader may take to even begin composing an imagination from the words he reads on the page.
One could, however, also think of Lee’s film and its faithfulness to the words of Martel as being one type of adaptation - the sort where a well-known book is cautiously chosen by a studio executive (in the case of Pi, Gabler), optioned by the studio-heads, nurtured and tended for years at end by the property-owner because it can see potential – usually of the sort where the project will inevitably attract major industry-talent and trade-hype. This is to say that the moment it gets greenlit, a well-armed crew of scrawny, grown-up men will be dispatched to some corner of the world to translate a few passages from the book into sequences of vulgar scale and massive proportions – the sort that are ‘awe-inspiring, breathtaking and eye-popping’. And history is proof that a studio will blow up money if it can sense an eventual extravaganza – like bringing up a child only so that it can become the best pinch-hitter ever known. And then there is the second sort of adaptation, one where a personality-director himself first chances upon and then chooses a book he must adapt. This is usually because the director can sense more than merely an opportunity to leech on or extort from existing work – instead, he or she may think of the book as fertile ground; as material that facilitates a setting, a set of conditions, thematic or ideological concerns and peculiar individuals that populate its pages – this will permit him to use the book as some sort of a springboard for his own ideas. The book can then provide the empty vessel which the filmmaker can fill with entirely cinematic qualities: rhythm, mood, gestures, atmosphere, manners, quaint mood and such.
In a description of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis while declaring it as the best film of this year, critic Srikanth Srinivasan began with, ‘'Surely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year.' I requested him over email to perhaps elaborate on this; he replied, ‘Cronenberg's cinema hasn't directly dealt with the crises of modern capitalism, which seems to be the chief concern of Delillo’s novel…[but] it is rattling to see what Cronenberg does here: he locates a body horror narrative within a story about the absolute abstraction of capital.’ Needless to say, this is very interesting – the fact that one artist’s work facilitates the other’s or at the very least, makes it possible – it isn’t entirely a collaboration (or a collaboration at all) but it is still a relationship of simulated synthesis – the adaptation extends the original work, confirming that any harmonious adaptation is, atleast in one way, a living proof of the ductility of the original work itself. Satyajit Ray, a prolific literature-cinema translator throughout his own career (the Apu trilogy, Jana Aranya, Devi, Teen Kanya, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne among others) wrote in his essay, ‘Notes on Filming Bibhuti Bhushan’, ‘…One can be entirely true to the spirit of Bibhuti Bhushan, retain a large measure of his […] … lyricism and humanism combined with a casual narrative structure – and yet produce a legitimate work of cinema.’
However, there are other instances in the history of cinema too where the whole adaptation business can come across as some sort of a turf-war, with the author of the book desperately attempting to reclaim his own work from the wrenches of a star-director who is running away with it. This usually happens when an uptight author refuses to free his work from the bondage of a single meaning, the one he intended – it is when the author feels that its adaptation will interfere, or worse, tamper with the agenda of the original text that he takes up arms. Apart from the obvious fun-times inherent in seeing two grown up dudes trying to prove who the bigger artist is (these are always fun), this sort of dissent also points at the infrequent inability of the two media to reconcile – to reach some sort of a peaceful treaty.
During the shooting of The Shining, pop-culturist author Stephen King would often receive calls at two in the night from the film’s legendary director, Stanley Kubrick. He would pick up the phone, half-asleep and groggy: ‘Hello?’; from the other side, Kubrick would ask, ‘Hi Stephen, do you believe in God?’ The eventual no-love-lost relationship that Stephen and Stanley shared could be attributed to these creepy post-midnight interferences, but King’s problems with Kubrick’s film were greater. He said upon viewing the film, ‘I was deeply disappointed in the end result…Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn't grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones…it's a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little…’ The last bit isn’t really a very original complaint when it comes to Kubrick; regardless, it is of great interest that at the same time, King expressed a desire to film the novel himself. He did, eventually. His version, released as a mini-series in 1997 was widely panned and cited as an example of a giant in one medium taking a bite larger than he could chew. In his failure, he seemed to have vindicated Kubrick’s understanding of how his own novel should be filmed – one must do only what one is good at. There have been other cases too, such as when Alfred Hitchcock quite famously declared that the book that resulted in Psycho wasn’t ‘all that good to begin with’ or when Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, hugely dissatisfied with the (enormously successful) Hollywood adaptation of his 1986 novel began the sequel with a grudgy Gump telling the readers, ‘Don’t never let nobody make a movie out of your life’s story…’ Anyways, these are all fun-and games. At any rate, ego-fights aren’t a new thing at all, with ego being the main propeller of the history of the modern world, so it isn’t unnatural for creators and later, propagators of an idea to develop cold feet, get insecure and fight it out as real men do: over press conferences.