I Liked It--But Not as Much as the Film

The Whale Rider - Witi Ihimaera

I liked this book, but I <i>loved</i> the 2002 this was based upon, and that no doubt colored my evaluation--the book didn't touch me in the same way. Which is unusual, because I usually prefer the book versions over their film adaptations, consider them the richer experience. And arguably this is, but perhaps part of it that the more mystical take of the book is just something I'm not in tune with. In his Author's Note Ihimaera emphasizes the theme of Maori legend that centers and is a big part of the book:

<i>Moaori and Polynesian stories come from a different source, a different inventory than western tradition, and I am writing from within that different tradition. Accompanying my work as an indigenous writer is a whole thrilling mythology and history that encompasses all of Polynesia and the Pacific.</i>

But dropping away some of the mystical and environmental themes meant the focus was more centered on the relationship between Kahu, the girl who is the title character and her relationship with her stern grandfather Koro Apirana, the Maori chief who thinks girls are a waste and not worth teaching the Maori traditions. In the film Kahu, who is older than in the book, wants to be tribal chief someday--not a thread in the book.

That's the thing with films compared to books--they have to be compressed. Despite that this is a very short novel, a novella even of just 113 pages, the producers of the film had to make choices about what would fit into an adaptation. Usually a film has to narrow the focus. Yes, things were lost. I don't really remember Kahu's grandmother, Nancy Flowers, being much of a presence in the film, and I did love her here. Kahu's Uncle Rawiri is the principle narrator in the book, and again though he was in the film, he just wasn't that memorable to me--the major focus was the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter--and I like the dynamic that created and the girl coming-into-her own power themes--much more pointed in an ambitious twelve year old girl of the film than the 8 year old of the book. So while I wouldn't disparage the book, yes for me in this case the film rules!