From page to screen: Yann Martel's Life of Pi
We chart the voyage of Pi from little-known novel to blockbuster Ang Lee adaptation
One of the bestselling winners in the history of the Man Booker Prize got its head start in Edinburgh. Its journey to the big screen has been even more incredible. Hannah McGill finds out more
Around the turn of the millennium, French-Canadian author Yann Martel had a story collection and a novel under his belt. Though published by Faber, his early works were little read outside of Canada, and not much buzzed about even there. The Guardian would later bluntly recount that far from heralding a rising star, Martel’s early books ‘sank without trace’. His second novel, Life of Pi – the story of a lad lost at sea in the company of a menagerie of not-always-friendly four-legged friends – would prove more seaworthy; but it would come damn close to never taking to the high oceans at all. And it would rely for its big push on a Scottish publishing house that was itself a David amid Goliaths at the time – one which saw its own fortunes turned around as a result.
It’s hard, according to conventional wisdom, to reignite a literary career that’s made an unspectacular start. The same publisher won’t often feel inclined to launch a writer twice, let alone three times; once you’re discovered, you tend to sink or swim. Slow-build careers are tough to argue for, especially with today’s culture of overnight success hype and brutal market conditions. So when Martel produced his lush, scary, allegorical fantasy, the author started sniffing around for a new publisher. Francis Bickmore, now editorial director at Canongate, was at the time a keen beginner, six months into his tenure with the company. Canongate, a pocket-sized independent, had from its inception in 1973 been known primarily for Scottish-focused titles. After its acquisition in 1994 by the mercurial and ambitious Jamie Byng, the company widened its reach and notoriety with clever, flamboyant projects – reprinted books of the Bible introduced by unexpected and edgy names; counter-culture classics rediscovered by hip imprint Rebel Inc. Life of Pi, Bickmore recalls, appeared during ‘an interesting period for Canongate. We were just starting to get noticed by the book trade. We were selling rights to [Michel Faber’s] The Crimson Petal and the White to publishers around the world; we had a few books that were less Scottish-focused, more international, more commercial’. Then Byng got word of Life of Pi, and asked Bickmore to check it out. ‘I did not stop reading until four o’clock in the morning,’ he laughs. ‘I was swept away by the sheer magic of it.’ Bickmore pushed it on Byng: ‘The next night, he read it all. Very seldom do your views coincide so exactly with someone else’s!’ The pull? ‘This incredibly beguiling voice. Slightly quirky, arch; with a cutesiness to it; but at the same time it’s a story about death, and facing our fears.’
Faber had an option on Life of Pi, but were wavering, based on the unsuccessful existing relationship. ‘There was a sense,’ says Bickmore, ‘that if [Martel] went with Canongate, there would be a huge amount of energy, advocacy and passion put behind it.’ And the famed Byng charisma kicked in. ‘Jamie did a number on it – he made sure every literary editor was talking about it.’
Reviewers raved too. And there followed the small matter of the Man Booker Prize – nomination for which was no foregone conclusion for a book like Pi.
‘On another publisher’s list,’ Bickmore muses now, ‘it might not even have been entered. He wasn’t a big name. But it was the jewel in our crown that year, so we put it forward.’ The dark horse romped home. ‘It was a complete turning point for Canongate. Booksellers took us seriously … and before Hilary Mantel, it was the bestselling Booker winner. It worked commercially and critically – it was that sweet spot between the two.’
Now it is a truth universally acknowledged that a hit book, obviously filmable or not, must become a hot movie property (hey, some of us are still waiting on Donna Tartt’s The Secret History). So Life of Pi got optioned by Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, via president Elizabeth Gabler, with producer Gil Netter on board, and a vague commitment from that master of the mystically grandiose, M Night Shyamalan to direct a script by Dean Georgaris. Shyamalan and Georgaris, Gabler fronts now, 'never did anything.' Jean-Pierre Jeunet of Amélie superstardom usurped the director’s chair – and another Scottish connection developed, via our homegrown superproducer Iain Smith (The Fifth Element, Seven Years in Tibet). Now, though, the inevitable tech issues of a film primarily peopled by beasts kicked in. Jeunet wanted real animals; the practicalities were untenable. He and Smith reluctantly jumped ship. The project’s saviour was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon helmer Ang Lee, who was up not only for CGI, but commercially sexy 3D.
The pawed manuscript that kept Byng and Bickmore up all night is now a gigantic, high-tech spectacle with an onboard credit list to make Noah blush – and decent early word, despite elements that usually signify an expensive folly – kids, animals, water, of-the-moment technical gimmickry. Film critic and box office analyst Charles Gant calls the big screen Life Of Pi ‘a potential mismatch between the niche appeal of the subject matter – a teenage lad with some animals on a boat – and the production budget needed to tell that tale in a compelling manner.’ But, he says, ‘it’s a testament to Ang Lee’s powers as a director that he successfully turned this tricky material into a hugely satisfying, entertaining and spectacular movie.’ And delay, ironically, proved to favour the film as it had the book. ‘Ten years ago,’ says Gant, ‘it would have been virtually impossible to make this story work onscreen – and horrifyingly expensive. Time – by which I mean the steady progress of digital imagery at ever more affordable prices – has proved to be its most valuable ally.’
Just remember as you bask in the Hollywood glory: it all began right here on the Canongate, with the commitment of a couple of true believers to a funny little fable in which few had faith.
Life of Pi is on general release from Thu 20 Dec.