I am willing to bet that I enjoyed Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi more than you did. That sounds like a sweeping generalisation, I know, so let me specify terms. If you were among the ten million people who read the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel, then I would argue that I had the advantage at the cinema because I hadn’t.
Though I’d gleaned that it was about a boy in a boat with a tiger – a premise comprehensively advertised in the film’s publicity – I had no idea how the story panned out. Ergo: I enjoyed it more than you, thrilling at every unexpected twist of the plot and with no notion of whether the tiger survives. Or the hyena, come to that.
I could apply the same equation to a veritable reading list of beloved, bestselling, prize-winning novels made into films in recent years: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (hingeing on a major twist that the book’s disciples will have known); Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James; The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth; the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins; the Twilight quadrilogy by Stephenie Meyer; One Day by David Nicholls; War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (or the play by Nick Stafford).
I went to see every single one of the eight Harry Potter movies surrounded by devotees of JK Rowling’s world-beating books, many of them pint-sized and literally perched on the edge of their seats, and I felt blessed, for I had no idea what happened next at any turn and experienced the sucker-punch of surprise each time – a currency hard-won in this age of previews, teasers and first looks.
Going to see the film-of-a-book when you’ve read the book is like seeing the film for a second time, a cleft stick used to beat readers for making a novel a bestseller in the first place. If a book sells, the rights are purchased, because the film studios have run out of new stories to tell and rely on novelists to do the work – and find an audience – for them. The Fifty Shades trilogy had sold well over 100 million copies when the first movie adaptation was released earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, despite snarky reviews, it took over $569 million worldwide.
Before you make any assumptions, I am a voracious reader. I used to read novels by the shelf-load. But around 15 years ago, I became obsessed with non-fiction books. My appetite for things that actually happened, or are happening means that there aren’t the hours in the day to get through my current pile of books and, as a result, I rely on films to provide me with my fix of fiction. It’s a very agreeable arrangement.
As a teenager, I fell for Stephen King. As a by-product, I sat through every adaptation one step ahead of the action. It didn’t stop me enjoying The Dead Zone, or Christine, or The Stand, as moving pictures arouse an entirely different set of receptors in our brains – and there’s sport in seeing how someone else visualises the story. But I know how proprietorial you feel about Gone Girl or Life of Pi, or even non-fiction memoirs like Wild by Cheryl Strayed or American Sniper by Chris Kyle, all now films.
There’s a counter argument, of course. When a bewitched reader of Life of Pi sees the film, they bring to it an added dimension of understanding from the page. Themes of storytelling, personal salvation and theology are built into the original text by Martel, but even the most sympathetic scriptwriter will struggle to bring them to the screen. The visualisation of a book, even by an artist of the calibre of Ang Lee, can only be so deep. Imagination is bottomless.
If it turns out that I am deluded, and that readers of bestselling fiction are having a better time at the cinema than I am, then so be it. But at least you’ll never hear me muttering afterwards in a cavalier fashion, “Well, it wasn’t as good as the book.”
Life of Pi is on Channel 4 on Sunday 9th August at 9.00pm