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

Life of Pi is a story about all stories, the tolerance of many stories and the many versions of those stories. Maybe the tiger is a symbol for God. Maybe he's a metaphor for some aspect of Pi's personality, a spur to his motivation to survive. Maybe the tiger is just a tiger. In the novel, Pi asks, "Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?" Some people believe that it rains because cumulus clouds grow into cumulonimbus clouds; for others it rains because a god is angry. We rely on different narratives to explain the mysteries of the world. While some may be more factually accurate, they may not be more emotionally accurate. I'm fascinated by Pi, a character who believes a little bit in Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Atheism ... and finds no conflict in how these belief systems come together.

[optional image description]David Magee, Rakesh Mehra, and Ang Lee visit the Narasimha
Temple in Melkote, India. (Courtesy of Jean Christophe Castelli)

In a tricky adaptation, you find a way to express something that moves the story forward and leads your audience through a character's emotional progression. There's a line in the included scene, "Words and patterns went on and on without end, just like my irrational nickname," which quietly plays off of a later moment: Pi, stranded in the Pacific, is writing in his journal. He says, "Words are all that I have to hold onto," and we see the pencil getting smaller and smaller until finally, it's unusable. That's how you know he's at an emotional end of his journey and, more subtly, that he's changed. Words are no longer frustratingly "irrational" to him anymore. He's realized that his survival is due, in part, to his ability to hold onto stories and ideas.

Suraj Sharma, playing the teenaged Pi, has just appeared for the first time, and we're trying to capture his adolescent disillusionment in this scene. It culminates with the introduction of a character that's not in the novel at all: Anandi, Pi's first crush. When he leaves India, he must say goodbye to her, which makes their relationship all the more poignant. He believes it will go on forever. This is an example of where we took some liberty to set up the emotional struggle that Pi faces when he's in the middle of the ocean. He's got somewhere to travel in his heart and mind as he realizes the world is larger and more complicated than the zoo in which he grew up; tigers are not just beautiful animals, they are ferocious and dangerous.

When working on an adaptation, it's important to take time to explore, make mistakes, and expand upon what the author has done. Yann was very open when we showed him the second draft—he liked the Anandi scene. He felt it was a nice extension to his work. On the other hand, he felt that we had gotten too playful, too casual, with the relationship between Pi and the tiger, which is a profound one. We humans tend to assume that a cat, for example, is mad at us rather than just behaving like an animal. It's a tricky line.

A film is not a book. Staying "faithful" in adaptation is not a matter of literally transcribing chapters into scenes;it's about invoking something your audience remembers from reading the original text. The greatest screenplays are examples of craft first. A screenplay is never itself a completed artwork because, by definition, it's written to be translatable, to evoke a bigger canvas.

In three and a half years, we wrote 170 drafts of the script. Ang's constant refrain was "could be better," so I would go off and make it better. In finding the essence of the story there was the process of his challenging me. A couple of weeks in, I remember nervously saying to Ang, "I don't really know how we're going to do this." "Neither do I," he replied, which made me feel better. We were on the boat together.

- David Magee, as told to Leily Kleinbard


Read past First Drafts from Wilco, Natasha Trethewey, Stephen King, Christo, and others.

Presented by

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

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