“I was a mostly unemployed theater actor who was having a great time and earning nothing,” said the upbeat Magee (above right, with Lee and lead actor Suraj Sharma) in a Friday phone interview. “I did a lot of voiceover to support my acting habit, and out of that had opportunities to narrate audio books.”
Through that work, he found himself comparing the full-length edition of a book with the abridged version.
“I read the abridgement of this one novel that I liked and thought, ‘This is horrible, what this abridgment has done. This is terrible. I could do better than this,’” Magee recalled. “They asked, ‘Would you like to try?”
Over the next five or six years, Magee estimates, he did 80 abridgements, taking 200,000-word novels and eliminating more than 80% of the content. That became his screenwriting training, focusing on paring the dialogue, action and description, while remaining true to the story.
“I think if I had done it consciously, I never would have done it quite so well,” Magee said.
* * *
Magee went on to earn an adapted screenplay Oscar nomination for 2004’s “Finding Neverland,” before co-adapting 2008’s “Miss Pettigrew for a Day” with Simon Beaufoy.
Meanwhile, “Life of Pi” was on its own journey. The attempt to turn Yann Martel’s 2001 novel into a film dates back almost to its publication date, but different attempts had gone awry.
“By the time I came on,” Magee said, “they had pretty much shelved those other versions and were looking for a new approach to it. About 4 ½ years ago, Ang Lee was brought on and was convinced it could be an exciting project. As I understand it, he looked at a shortlist of writers that he was thinking might be good for project. Ang and I had come close to working together on something else a while back … he picked my name out of the hat and it worked out well for me.”
Magee then approached the adaptation from scratch.
“I never read any of the previous drafts, and I didn’t want to discuss them,” he said. “If you’re going to do a pass on someone else’s draft, that’s one thing — trying to solve some internal problems. If you’re going to start from the beginning, you don’t want to try to add new challenges by incorporating scenes from some other draft if they don’t fit with what you’re trying to do.”
Working together closely from the start, Magee and Lee determined that the overriding theme of the project would be storytelling, a choice that accounts for the framing device in the movie while also allowing for both science-based and faith-based interpretations.
“Ang had decided early on he wanted to have the adult Pi telling the story,” Magee said. “We had a lot of discussions among ourselves about faith, doubt, agnosticism, atheism — all of these things — but all of these things had in common different people’s interpretation of the world. Rather than make this a film about faith in God or believing in a certain set of prescriptions of how the world works, we wanted to make a larger observation of the ways we interpret how the world.
“It may be more esoteric, but it’s also more inclusive.”
Finding the right tone for the script remained a challenge, one that remained unsolved until he visited the shooting location itself.
“We played with the opening quite a bit,” he said. “It wasn’t until we got to Southern India, an absolutely amazing place, just beautiful and so completely unlike anything I had ever seen before. We were driving around in a van one day, and (Lee said), ‘It’s like an adult telling a young adult’s adventure story.’ That hit it for me – I understood the tone there. It was not talking down to children, but the kind of story a family member would tell you about a wondrous adventure a person went on.
“I wrote the first scene in the van. … I got (the tone), I pulled out my computer and started typing.”
* * *
In adapting the book for the film, Magee knew that he had to be loyal to whatever best served the story — without alienating those who had clear memories of the novel.
“You have to show your readers respect,” he said. “If they see this film because they love the book, you have to try to latch onto … not the literal lines of the book, but you have to capture the same intention, same spirit, come to the same conclusions.
“Obviously, you know there are certain scenes you can’t leave out, otherwise someone’s going to rail online for weeks. … But I hope anyone who had not read the book that morning would not notice the changes as much as they notice the similarities.”
And in fact, one scene from the novel that Magee and Lee failed to translate into the film ended up paying unexpected dividends.
“There was a scene that fascinated both of us, that took place when Pi finds himself losing his eyesight in the book, and he has something of a hallucination where he imagines himself talking to the tiger. We tried writing it, I can’t tell you how many different ways. We even got a storyboard artist to draw different versions of it.
“It never came together, but out of that we discovered another scene which we called the Tigervision.”
Magee went on to describe the scene, but I’ll forgo spoiling it. Suffice it to say, it’s the most memorable scene in the entire film. It’s at once amazing and all too appropriate that it was essentially born from a happy accident, the same term that could describe Magee’s evolution from audiobook guy to Oscar-worthy screenwriter.