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.

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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.

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.

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

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