Adapting 'Life of Pi' for the Big Screen Took 170 Script Revisions

Screenwriter David Magee shares a page from the first and final drafts of his and Ang Lee's screenplay based on Yann Martel's book, which Magee had thought "unfilmable."

20th Century Fox

It's been an Oscar season marked by adaptations of seemingly un-filmable novels: first David Mitchell's century-spanning Cloud Atlas, then Salman Rushdie's sprawling Midnight's Children, and now Life of Pi, Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning story of a shipwrecked Indian boy who spends 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Bringing that story to the screen was a three-year process for director Ang Lee, whose adaptation of Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain garnered him an Oscar for Best Director in 2005, and screenwriter David Magee, an Oscar nominee for his work on Finding Neverland.

To better understand the surgical, elusive art of adaptation, I spoke with Magee, who shared a page from the Life of Pi screenplay and his thoughts on what gets changed—and added—in the translation of a story from book to film.

I first read Life of Pi in London on the set of Finding Neverland. I mentioned to the director, Marc Forster, that I had just finished an amazing book. "Is it a film?" he asked. "No," I replied, "It's about a boy and a tiger on a boat," and pretty much dismissed the idea. Six years later, I got a call from my agent wanting to know if I had ever heard of the novel. "Oh yes," I said, "It's a wonderful book." "Ang Lee wants to work on it," he responded. The next night I met Ang at a sushi restaurant in lower Manhattan to discuss the novel. At the end of our meal, he said, "I think you'd be great. Let's do it," and almost immediately I went from dismissing the novel as impossible to having it as my next project.

Let me back up: I started out as an actor and moved into voiceovers—I used to narrate those audiobooks that people play while driving. Over the course of five years, I abridged about 80 novels. I'm not sure I did any favors to their authors, but it was a tremendous training ground for my eventual work as a screenwriter. I learned to identify the skeleton of a novel concisely and quickly. But Life of Pi was especially challenging—so much of the story is told in the mind of the character, not through action but through reflection. I'd write some pages and send them to Ang. We'd meet at his place, talk about the pages, go to lunch, talk over lunch, go back to his apartment, talk some more. Then I'd go home and write new pages. Those first few months were all exploration. We weren't writing scenes, we were writing ideas.

Click below to enlarge pages from the first and final drafts of Life of Pi.

Pi_first draft_edited-1.jpg
Pi_final draft.jpg

My nephew, as it happens, had recently read Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, Steven Callahan's true account of his survival on an inflatable raft in the Atlantic. Ang and I contacted Steve, and he invited us to his home in Maine. The three of us went out on the water, dropped the sail, and sat there talking about how a journey can change a person while the boat bounced around like a washing machine.

Yann was very open when we showed him the second draft. He felt that we had gotten too playful with the relationship between Pi and the tiger, which is a profound one.

A couple weeks later we flew to India. We wanted to arrive ahead of the monsoon season, which, unfortunately, meant that we arrived in the hottest period of the year. Our first days in Mumbai, and in the towns we saw as we traveled along the coast, were all over a hundred degrees. We would visit Hindu temples and have to remove our shoes before going inside. The stones in the courtyards were blistering hot, sending us running from patch of shade to patch of shade as we made our way to the entrance of the temples. It wasn't until we reached the mountainous region of Munnar that we finally escaped the worst of the heat. Munnar is tea-growing country, with workers in wide, multi-colored sunshade hats dotting the hillsides as they pick leaves. We visited a factory where the leaves were chopped and processed. The sweet, grass green smell of freshly chopped tealeaves was overwhelming—completely unlike the mild spice of dried leaves—and something I will never forget.

It was during our trip to India that I finally found the rhythm, the tone, we had been searching for. I wrote the first two scenes, and when we got back, I sat down and wrote a very rough draft of the script using the split screen method that Ang suggested. It was a new way of looking at the material: We weren't preoccupied by the question of when the cut happens. It allowed us to rearrange and play scenes off one another while maintaining a continuous narrative.

Presented by

Leily Kleinbard is associate editor for PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers.

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