'Life of Pi' and 'Anna Karenina' Prove There's No Such Thing As an "Unfilmable" Book

'Life of Pi' and 'Anna Karenina' Prove There's No Such Thing As an "Unfilmable" Book

Nov 20, 2012


We spend a lot of time talking about the faithfulness of adaptation. The word itself reinforces its own virtue, as if somehow a screenwriter would be cheating on a novelist by cutting too much or changing too many details. Films are often praised for being accurate in their representation of the written word, as if the ultimate goal were a perfect transposition of a book onto the screen. The impossibility of that doesn’t seem to get in the way. Instead, we get angry when plot points get left out of fan favorites like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and brand more ambitious works of literature (like the recent book turned movie Cloud Atlas) to be “unfilmable.”

How, then, did Ang Lee's Life of Pi and Joe Wright's Anna Karenina (or, for that matter, any of the 11 other movie versions of Tolstoy’s classic) make it to the big screen? These two new films are not only both successful adaptations, but they're also formidable works of art in their own right. I suspect this might be because Lee and Wright know that every novel is “unfilmable,” at least by a high standard of devotion.

Firstly, there’s the length problem. Even most 200-page novels would end up as day-long films if every scene were copied exactly. Yet even that wouldn’t be faithful, because an insignificant bit of dialogue would inevitably take up more screen time than an extended description of a tree or a piece of furniture. The very idea is ridiculous. Strangely enough, this gives considerable freedom to anyone trying to adapt something generally considered “unfilmable.” No one expects the director of an epic Russian novel or a complex work of religious and psychological metaphor to even approach any ideal completeness.

Good adaptations are, therefore, not faithful adaptations. The best films derived from novels are those that add something new. If a film were just a copy of what we might imagine while reading the book, then it would serve no purpose. Instead of mimicking the detailed-but-often-boring BBC miniseries style, Cary Fukunaga and Andrea Arnold both tore at the emotional core of the works of the Bronte sisters last year, with impressive results. And in a way, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are easy projects compared to the enormity of Anna Karenina and the spiritually charged simplicity of Life of Pi.

The latter, Yann Martel’s eccentric tale of a young Indian boy trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, could have been a disastrous project for any movie studio. The plot is very basic, mostly taking place on the open and empty ocean. Its themes, on the other hand, derive from enigmatic near-allegory. As a novel it’s a beautiful affirmation of the human spirit, but as a film it could be excruciatingly dull.

Lee approached the problem with a strategy not unlike that of Gone with the Wind or the impossibly expensive Soviet War and Peace. Life of Pi couldn’t be more different as a book, but the films have a lot in common. They are grand, forward-thinking extravaganzas of cinematic technique, outdoing every reader’s imagination by orchestrating breathtaking sequences that take full advantage of every available excess.

The colors of Tara and the scope of the Siege of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind are matched by the vast 3D Pacific Ocean in Life of Pi. Every conceivable texture of water is in Lee’s film, from the swimming pools of Paris to the rapidly flooding ocean liner that sends Pi and the tiger out into the endless horizon. The tiger is a flawlessly detailed creation while the environment jumps at the chance to bring the more energetic moments of Martel’s novel to life. Schools of flying fish, monstrous whales and the many moods of the Pacific expanse come to life in ways previously unimaginable.

The only significant hiccups of Life of Pi come not from its visual ambition but its dedication to the source material. David Magee’s screenplay gives much greater weight to the book’s framing device of a Canadian novelist (a stand-in for Martel himself), which weakens and flattens the story. The least creative part of the adaptation, it is the film’s only substantial flaw.

It is also a mistake that Wright handily avoids in his magnificent retelling of Anna Karenina.

The source of his success is an embrace of fluidity between disciplines. Last year, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog each broke ground in the use of 3D by incorporating another art form: dance in Pina and prehistoric painting in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. While not pushing forward technologically (Anna Karenina is not in 3D), Wright works in the same vein by using theater to bridge the gap between Tolstoy´s mammoth novel and cinema. 

Anna Karenina is set on the stage, framed by a theatrical procenium that keeps the boundaries of its complex and expansive plots within reason. Open yet controlled, rather than restrictive and claustrophobic, it is at once reminiscent of both Cabaret and 8 ½. The camera frames the actors like ballerinas, constantly moving about as if dancing along.

This also keeps the film whole, in spite of the large cuts necessitated by the length of the original book. Tolstoy’s original gives equal weight to two protagonists, Anna and Konstantin Levin, even though they meet only once in the entire novel. The young nobleman and aspiring farmer is often seen as a stand-in for the great writer himself, and allows the book to navigate a wide range of other themes.

Wright ignores much of this 19th century political and social discourse, focusing instead on the love triangle. Cinema doesn’t have the same ability to show an entire society, but it can be the perfect medium to delve deeply into a torrid and tormented affair. (For more on the differences between book and film, Film.com has a thorough rundown.)

Anna Karenina is a tightly choreographed production in the tradition of the Ballet Russe, kept moving by Dario Marianelli’s enchanting score and Keira Knightley’s passionate performace as Anna. Never rushed, it comes together around Wright’s theatrical ambition in a way that elevates the novel with a distinctly cinematic flavor. 

It almost feels like cheating, the way this single device allows for a seamless solution to the difficult nature of the novel. Yet once you acknowledge that all books are “unfilmable,” you can go about filming them. Not only is our obsession with “faithfulness” somewhat silly, it discourages us from daring projects. Anna Karenina and Life of Pi, by embracing the unique and new ways that cinema can reimagine literature, stand as proof that adaptation should be seen as great opportunity rather than risk. 

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