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."
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.