Friday, November 16, 2012

“Which story do you prefer?” A film review from a literary perspective

Wow, this has been an exciting fall for literary adaptations! I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi a decade ago and thought it was fantastic storytelling. I cheered when it won the Man Booker Prize. So, I was quite excited to attend an advance screening recently with several members of my book group. I remembered the novel quite well in broad strokes, but not the fine detail. I didn’t refresh my memory before watching the film, but was curious enough to reread Life of Pi in its entirety before writing this review. The film is very true to the novel in spirit and tone, but there are small changes, additions (generally positive), and elisions (some noteworthy).

The film opens similarly to the novel. The idea is the same, but the execution is slightly different. Different mediums require different storytelling tools. For instance, I believe most film-goers will readily recognize The Writer (portrayed by actor Rafe Spall, who replaced a distractingly famous Toby Maguire) as a stand-in for author Martel. In the novel, it is Martel himself, in direct address to readers, who fulfills this role, effectively blurring the line between fact and fiction. It is established that this story is being related to The Writer by an older Pi. From there, readers are introduced to a young Piscine Molitor Patel and the world he inhabits. It’s a charmed childhood, being raised at the Pondicherry Zoo amongst a loving family and exotic animals—an Indian “We Bought a Zoo.” These scenes are as lush and colorful as any Bollywood musical.

I’ve discussed this novel with other readers countless times over the years. It’s beloved by many, but truly hated by a vocal minority. I’ve never understood the vitriol, personally. Martel writes beautifully and accessibly. His story is fast-paced and yet deeply rooted in character. And it explores the boundless subject of faith through an extraordinary tale—a “story to make you believe in God.” But one complaint I’ve heard from readers is frustration over (or lack of interest in) Pi’s religious explorations early in the novel. The young man is a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. Martel never belabored the point, but those readers will be gratified to see that director Ang Lee has streamlined the beginning of the tale to move more swiftly to the meat of the story.

And that comes about when Pi’s family packs up their lives, their animals, and moves the whole kit and caboodle to Canada by ship. Well, that’s the plan. Something goes wrong in rough seas outside of Manila. The ship goes down in a haunting scene, and now the stage is set. Sixteen-year-old Pi is shipwrecked in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a 450-pound adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It’s survival of the fittest on the high seas, and things get Darwinian fast. Soon enough, it’s Pi and Richard Parker in it together.

When I first heard the premise of this novel, somehow I thought Richard Parker would be some kind of cute, anthropomorphized tiger, and oversized puddy tat. He was not. He was a terrifying predator, and he stayed a terrifying predator, throughout Pi’s ordeal. This was much the same in the movie (although not quite to the degree as in the novel, a change commented upon by Martel in the Hollywood Reporter). Richard Parker was scary in the book, but he was terrifying on the screen. I flinched as he snarled and lunged in 3D.

From here, both novel and film take on an episodic or picaresque quality. The film is delightfully dream-like from its opening frames. (An early scene of the swimming pool from which Pi derives his name enchanted me!) But as the days at sea pass, and the ribs of both animals become plainly visible, the film shifts from dream-like to hallucinatory. Episodes and encounters become increasingly extraordinary. Sitting in the audience, I could clearly discern who had read the novel and who had not by the gasps and exclamations. (Among my friends, the film was enjoyed equally by those who had read the book and those who had not.)

Yes, there are episodes that are missing from the film, one of which is quite notable. Fans may miss it. And, yet, I can understand the choices made. Cuts were judicious. As noted earlier there are a few small shifts and changes. But this is a very faithful adaptation of Martel’s novel, and I suspect it will please most fans of the original. What is lost is more than made up for by how Ang Lee has brought Martel’s fantastic vision to life.

The cinematography and design of this film is exquisitely beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of 3D technology, but once in a while it seems to really augment a film. Such is the case here—all the better to experience a small boat on the vast ocean. And while we’re on the subject of technology, the CGI work on the tiger is seamless. None of us could detect where the real tiger ended and the computer-generated beast began. I have heard that young Suraj Sharma never once filmed with the live animal. For safety, their scenes were filmed separately. And I don’t know how much footage was of a real cat. All I can say is that the illusion is extraordinarily believable. That a first-time actor could give such a convincing performance playing opposite an imaginary tiger is doubly impressive. The success of the film lies firmly on Sharma’s moving portrayal of 16-year-old Pi, but the supporting performances were equally strong. It was Spall’s response to Pi’s story at the end of the film that actually gave me chills.

I’ve been circumspect about revealing specifics of the plot. I’ll leave all the surprises of Pi’s voyage intact for those new to the tale. And readers of the novel can see for themselves what made the cut. About the ending… Those who have read the novel know what to expect. Now film-goers can join the debate we’ve been having for the past decade. In the end, it truly is all about faith. Which story do you prefer?

President Barack Obama's note to Yann Martel after reading Life of Pi.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Get out the vote!

Last week, I received this email from novelist Ayelet Waldman:

To win this election, we have to do whatever it takes to convince swing state voters to turn out and vote for Obama.

To that end, I'm hosting a call party

Sunday November 4th
4 pm

Please join me. You bring your cell phone, I'll supply the treats.


I don't know how I got this invitation from Ayelet. I mean, I don't know if she sent this to everyone on her mailing list, or just folks in the Bay Area, or people she sort-of knew, or what. But I got it, and it was welcome.

I know this is a book blog and not a political blog, so see how I integrate the literary and the political on this important day...

The fact is, Ayelet Waldman and her husband Michael Chabon live over in Berkeley, right across San Francisco Bay from me. It's a pretty safe assumption, on both of our parts, that we share a similar left-leaning ideology. And both Ayelet and Michael have been extremely public and outspoken in their support of the President, so I don't think I'm outing anyone. I was pretty sure they'd visited the White House at some point, but it turns out there are far more connections than just that. A quick Google search informs me that Ayelet and Barak Obama were at Harvard Law together. She was hugely active in his 2004 campaign, and attended the 2004 Democratic Convention as an Obama delegate. She, Michael, and their kids also attended his historic inauguration in DC. (And as a native Washingtonian, I still remember my bitterness at not being able to fly home for the occasion.) As for Michael, he went one step further--he wrote Mr. Obama a significant cameo appearance in his most recent novel, Telegraph Avenue (which I rave about here).

So, Ayelet, Michael, and me, we're all good, Obama-supporting Democrats. Personally, as a San Franciscan, I always have a sense of frustration that my vote is meaningless, or "doesn't count." I mean, I don't think that anyone is worried about the Democrats winning San Francisco, or California for that matter. I'm just voting with the pack out here. I want to make a difference in Florida and Michigan and Ohio and Nevada! And that's what Ayelet's invitation allowed me to do in a very small way. I was thrilled to be able to accept her invitation--and not just because I was curious to, let's face it, check out the home of these two writers that I so admire.

I have teased on this blog in the past that Ayelet has squinted at me on many occasions and asked, "How do I know you?" I decided to head that off at the pass by marching up her porch on Sunday and announcing, "Hi, Ayelet, I'm Susan Tunis. Thanks for having me over." To my surprise, when I said my name, Ayelet indicated that she knew who I was, and I believed her. ( Don't know what that's about.) But, I have to tell you that she and Michael were the consummate hosts. They were both friendly, casual, and inviting, and people--they'd turned their home into a war room! There were volunteers at computers and on phones everywhere. I'd arrived exactly on time, but when I entered their kitchen (filled, as promised, with all the snacks and beverages anyone could possibly want) there was activity in full swing. It left me wondering if they'd held their call party in shifts? Had they been doing it all day?  All weekend?  All fall?

What I can tell you is that those two are campaigning pros. They weren't on the phone, but circulating constantly: welcoming, training, troubleshooting. "Anyone having trouble getting on the Internet? Michael will help you." At another point, Ayelet told us to take over her house, to spread out, because we had the run of the place. "I don't care. You can go make calls on my bed--don't tell my husband I said that." (I think it's safe to say that Michael Chabon has better things to do than read my blog.) I can further assure you that I did not wander their house. The parts I saw on the first floor were very, very nice, but also felt real--like real people with four kids lived there. It was a nice, warm, friendly house. That was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Actually, I felt kind of shy being in their home. I've had so many interactions with both of them in bookstores and at lit events over the years. And I feel pretty comfortable in that environment, because it's the right time and place to discuss books and be a fan. But on Sunday, I was a guest in their home, and I was there to do an important job--one I felt really strongly about giving my all. Michael was super friendly when he saw me, but I had a phone to my ear, and it just didn't feel like the right time or place to be that geeky girl who loves his books. (I'm a fan of Ayelet's as well, BTW. I've read and enjoyed quite a few of her books, starting way back with the Mommy Track mysteries.) So, I didn't really kibitz with my hosts or the other guests while I was there. Just the most minimal small talk. But everyone was friendly and working towards a common cause. I made as many phone calls as I could over the course of a few hours. I did the best I could to persuade people in Nevada and Ohio to turn out to vote for Obama.

Before I left, I again thanked Ayelet for inviting me. I told her the best part of joining them was all they taught me and that I could now do on my own moving forward. ("Yes, that's sort of the idea.") I only wish that I'd learned earlier! But I have confidence that my newly-acquired political activism skills will get called upon in the future. Now and Obama for America have all my info. I suspect I'll be called on again. And again. And I'll answer the call, because I do feel strongly about issues and the direction of this country. I'm so lucky to live in a city where almost everyone thinks like I do. We're proud of our "San Francisco values" out here.

I don't know if you share my opinions or if you'll be voting for my guy, but I urge you to get out and vote today. This is the time to let your voice be heard. It's a privilege, and I get excited every time I do it. Please, get out the vote!

And one final thank you to Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon for opening their home to all of us in the hope that we could do some collective good. Their generosity and just...awesomeness, it staggers. Go out and buy their books or something. They're amazing people.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Is there hope for the Middlesteins?

The Middlesteins
by Jami Attenberg

Edie Middlestein is a wife, mother, grandmother, lawyer, Jew, retiree, and an addict—not necessarily in that order. Edie is addicted to food, and her story starts not at a certain age, but at a specific weight: “Edie, 62 pounds.” Her life is recounted not in passing years, but in gaining pounds. But the bulk of this tale is relating Edie’s later adulthood. Edie’s children, Robin and Benny, are grown. Even her grandchildren are entering their teen years. At this point, Edie is morbidly obese—well over 300 pounds—sick, and her husband of decades, Richard, has just left her.

In the pages of this brief novel, Jami Attenberg has drawn a detailed character study of a woman and a family in crisis. As you may have gathered, this is a character-driven, rather than plot-driven tale. It’s less a matter of what’s going to happen—because I think we all know what’s going to happen—than whether it’s too late for these people. Is change possible? Is happiness possible?

Attenberg’s characters are finely-drawn, both sympathetic and deeply flawed in almost all cases. The issues with which they deal have the messy complexity of real life, without tidy narrative structures. Is it reprehensible to leave your sick wife? Yes, yes it is. But is it unreasonable to seek happiness? No it is not. These are the sort of issues wrestled with by the members of the dysfunctional Middlestein family.

There are no easy answers, but there insights into human nature along the way. I cared about these people. I hoped for them. In the end, that’s all you can do.