Whale Rider: Book Versus Movie

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The novel explicitly depicts the impiety humans treat nature with, for instance by executing nuclear tests or killing whales. This aspect is not present in Whale Rider which can at least to some extent be explained with the cast nearly entirely consisting of Maori who do not contaminate the sea. Moreover, Caro treats Paikea’s myth as completely isolated from any other Maori myths, so Ihimaera’s idea of this tale being part of a large cluster of interrelated myths is not conveyed. This leads to, for instance, the origins of the close connection between whales and humans in Maori culture not being explicated. Such a large number of essential aspects of the novel being omitted in the movie leads to a shift of the thematic focus in Whale Rider. Witi Ihimaera constructs a web full of interrelations to stress the notion of oneness between all components life on our planet involves, like nature, humans, non-human creatures, the sea, reality, fantasy, the past, the present, indigenous groups, the Western world, mythology from the past and its timeless impact, tradition, and modernity. He depicts Whangara and Maori culture as small components of this large web and wants to convey the message that people need to perceive all the other elements of the Earth as equal to live a life in unity with everyone and everything. Moreover he highlights the essentiality of a reciprocal, peaceful relationship between the components. Accomplishing this relationship will guarantee an existence satisfying everyone without any component being neglected or violated. Kahu is a heroine but mainly appears as an instrument (de Silva) to bring the former oneness back to her tribe by reinstating its reciprocal relationship with nature and animals and its connection to the past, the ancestors, the old myths and the supernatural, unreal world, and unifying tradition and modernity. She is a human born into a modern time, can interlock with animals just like mythical Paikea, and lives a tradition-conscious life. This story is quite specific since it contains several local myths and the special connection with whales which is unique to Maori culture.

The film appears as a more universal and less multi-layered story, and as it heavily focuses on a young girl’s journey trying to overcome the obstacles on her way to the top of her community frozen in traditional and outdated gender perceptions, female empowerment is foregrounded. Furthermore, Whangara is not included in but rather isolated from the complex web Ihimaera constructs.

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Apart from that, the movie addresses the importance of the implementation of a new cultural identity based on a balanced and effective combination of tradition and modernity. Especially indigenous groups need to be conscious of their identity and must not forget about their connection with their ancestors and traditions while simultaneously being open for going new ways. This balance between old and new ways is mainly symbolised by the local first-born boys who are initially disrespectful of and uninterested in their culture and tradition which is illustrated through them passing gas during a cultural performance. They demonstrate their respect for Pai as a female later on though by cheering her on while she is riding her bike (Caro 45:13), and eventually become tradition-conscious members in the end which is not least recognisable from them helping during the whale saving and singing Paikea’s chant to call for help for Pai (1:26:13).

The movie also calls for unity among humans which is achieved through including all community members in the finale. The message behind these scenes is clear: There can only be progress and communal spirit when everyone is included and has a task to fulfil and thereby senses they are needed just like Rawiri does when he teaches Pai the taiaha technique (Fell 3-4). Pai’s last words which also mark the end of the film – this additionally stresses the importance of her words – underline this overall message when she says via a voiceover, “I know that our people will keep going forward all together, with all of our strength” (Caro 1:33:33). However, all these themes are not Maori-specific and easily applicable on any culture worldwide, especially indigenous groups.

Due to the absence of any Pakeha, the film lacks the quite critical tone of the novel. Since evidently existing problems like racism and suppression of natives are swept under the carpet, it appears like these problems did and do not affect the lives of the natives which is not the case though in reality. The novel, therefore, offers a more critical but also more realistic approach to Maori life than the movie. Whale Rider portrays Whangara as an insular community whose future solely lies in the hands of its inhabitants and is mainly based on whether they can adapt themselves to the dynamics of modernity. The film, thus, suggests that any indigenous group can be enlightened when its members overcome the traditional hierarchical structures, stand strong together, move in the same direction, and preserve their cultural identity while simultaneously including modern, Western influences into their lives. This partial cultural assimilation plays a more important role in the movie than in the novel. The Whale Rider does call for the Western value of gender equality but lacks the vision of democratic leadership and the cohabitation and mingling of people from different cultures which is represented by Porourangi, Anna, and their unborn child and clearly an aspect of globalisation (Hokowhitu 68). Ihimaera deals with this issue through Rawiri’s travels but mainly to depict the differences and conflicts between Maori and Pakeha culture. Instead, the novel mainly calls for a return to old, traditional Maori values and beliefs, and for a stronger sense of nationalism and cultural belonging while in the movie, the importance of an effective balance between tradition and modernity is slightly more highlighted.

Oneness, the central theme of the novel, is present in the film but not explicitly hinted at; however, the climax and the final scenes do illustrate that several components of the world are brought together through the new cultural identity, namely whales and people, the past and the present as Paikea’s whale comes from the past, mythology and reality since the whale rider, a mythical figure, is reborn in the shape of Pai, tradition and modernity – this is, for instance, illustrated through the necessity of a change of the leadership style from an exclusive dictatorship to an inclusive democracy while simultaneously, traditional elements such as chanting, the haka, or canoeing must be preserved – males and females, and different generations which is particularly demonstrated in the finale when the three generations of Pai’s family are present.

Other themes such as exploitation of nature and serious endangerment of multiple species are probably left out in Whale Rider since they are mainly a Western phenomenon, but just because natives treat their environment more respectfully does not mean they are unaffected in case their first world fellow human beings mistreat it. Planet Earth is shared by white and indigenous people, and as long as someone lives against and not with nature, everyone will suffer the consequences.

Witi Ihimaera’s depiction of the Western world appearing as more critical than Niki Caro’s is not a surprise since the author is a native and the director of the film is a Pakeha. As a contemporary witness of the Maori crisis, Ihimaera can, furthermore, assess from his own experiences which problems the natives were going through, also concerning their contact with the Pakeha settlers. He was in the thick of the struggles of his people even though the major crisis was already over when The Whale Rider was published as the Maori renaissance had started around 20 years earlier. Caro, in contrast, was born when the renaissance slowly started and is not a native, so she was not actively involved in the crisis the indigenous people were facing. Also, during her childhood, the way the Pakeha treated the natives had already improved compared to the time when she had just been born, and the movie was additionally published 16 years after the novel was written. In 2002, the situation of the Maori had improved compared to 1986 since the recovery of the indigenous culture is still not fully finished and has steadily been taking place from when the renaissance started. The natives of New Zealand were widely accepted by their white fellow citizens in 2002, and the consciousness that the natives had not been treated entirely correctly until the late 1960s was certainly more internalised among the white New Zealanders than back in 1986, also due to the Waitangi Tribunal which made its first impacts right between the publication of the two works. Unemployment and drug addiction are, as stated in section 2.3, still above average among the Maori though which explains why these problems are present in Whale Rider.

Both novel and film offer a variety of aspects which are worth examining. Whale Rider heavily focuses on portraying Pai as the incarnate enlightenment which is achieved through the storyline and the use of lighting and camera techniques. The numerous contrasts with Koro as the personified darkness add to this image. In a more abstract sense, this suggests the traditional lifestyle and philosophy Koro represents is not only without prospects but also dangerous for the maintenance of the cultural identity. Contrastively, the democratic, Western leadership style Pai is striving for is presented as the key to enlightenment and the preservation of the cultural Maori identity for Whangara and its population. Furthermore, the film suggests that females can become influential individuals by believing in their strength and confidently pursuing their life goals, just like men do. Juxtapositions are an important device as they also illustrate the differences between tradition-conscious Pai and Koro who are additionally contrasted with the other locals. Additionally, both Ihimaera and Caro address children’s empowerment. Various techniques are, furthermore, applied to highlight the connection between whales and people and the superiority of nature over humanity. This aspect is also present in Witi Ihimaera’s novel. Nature is depicted as more influential and central in the novel since it accompanies several important events and foreshadows some others. Natural symbolism is distinct in The Whale Rider, particularly to highlight Kahu’s special nature. It is also present in the film, but concerning symbolism, Caro rather focuses on recurring items and motifs, for instance, the rope, the waka, or the rei puta. Ihimaera and Caro pursue similar strategies to build up suspense. Both publications also deal with and highlight the cyclical nature of time and life which is additionally underlined through the subtitles of the parts of The Whale Rider. Overall, the novel draws an ideal of a world shaped by oneness rather than fragmentation at all levels and foregrounds this as the major goal while the film mainly calls for gender equality, democratic leadership, inclusion, and for finding the ideal mix between tradition and modernity without one of these influences gaining the upper hand as this would invariably lead to fragmentation and the loss of one’s cultural identity.

Regarding the aspects and problems of Maori life addressed in chapter 2, many of them are present in both The Whale Rider and the film. The connection between whales and people, for instance, is made obvious through Paikea’s myth, and some other myths told in the novel. Ihimaera also includes the phenomenon of people from Western societies often looking down on members of other ethnic groups, using the example of Jeff’s family and especially Clara who discriminates against Rawiri and some other third world people. Moreover, Jeff’s family is presented as completely preoccupied with prejudice as the accident during which Bernard is killed by Jeff reveals. The phenomenon of the city exodus is hinted at in The Whale Rider through Rawiri who temporarily moves to Sydney, and Porourangi who lives in Whangara but works in a city (Ihimaera 28). Also, the grandparent-grandchild bond is part of both publications. In the novel, Nanny has a close relationship with her grandson Rawiri which is made particularly obvious through the effort she puts into cleaning his motorcycle during his absence (Ihimaera 64), and in the film, the bond exists between Pai and her grandparents. The loss of identity is thematised through Rawiri in both cases, and additionally through Porourangi in the movie, and the loss of the connection to the past, symbolised by the snapping rope, is present in both novel and movie. Another issue is the above-average number of criminal gang members, alcoholics, and drug addicts of Maori descent. In the novel, Rawiri is part of a biker gang but it does not become entirely clear whether it is a criminal gang or not. He just hints at the “strange relationship” between the gang and the police (Ihimaera 86). It is not clarified either whether the narrator and his friends take drugs as the reader only learns they like to smoke (Ihimaera 39). In the movie, Rawiri is depicted taking drugs (Caro 43:03). His friends are presented as alcoholics (Caro 45:33) while Hemi already smokes cigarettes at a young age at 31:37. The tensions between old and young people surface in the novel during the whale stranding at Wainui Beach when the older ones demonstrate their connection with nature and whales is still intact while some younger ones slaughter the defenceless animals. The movie also addresses this issue, mainly through the tensions between Koro and Pai but also through Hemi and the other boys who treat Pai differently, i.e. more respectfully than Koro. Ihimaera also includes maritime pollution as one of the points pilloried concerning the treatment of the natives and their environment. Te reo Maori is included in both cases, mainly through the numerous Maori words in the novel and the school for the boys in Whale Rider, but also through the imaginative conversations the whales are having in the novel. Furthermore, the oneness Ihimaera highlights was distinct among the early settlers, especially with nature. Lastly, the film picks up the motif of the canoe or waka as an essential part of traditional Maori life, and the haka is part of both works. As for the technical and stylistic parts of the analysis, the novel heavily relies on symbolism, especially concerning natural foreshadowing and accompanying symptoms throughout the story. Kahu is built up as the future hero through her white, enlightened appearance.

In general, it was impossible to include every aspect and theme of novel and film within the word count limit. Therefore, numerous interesting issues could not be considered as extensively as desired, including the depiction of the Maori in the movie and their transformation, the relationship between nature and people, or characterisations of all the different characters in novel and movie. Also, sections dealing with the production history of Whale Rider, an examination on whether the film can be called authentic or not, the comparison of key scenes ahead of the climax, or the political issues and the numerous myths brought up in The Whale Rider had to be shortened drastically or completely eliminated. Values like unity and love were mainly left out as well, and so was the religious aspect. Even all the chapters and sections of this thesis could have been more detailed if there was not a word count limit. This thesis, therefore, just deals with some interesting aspects of the two publications, and it was still difficult not to exceed the limit. All the themes and aspects listed above might be suitable for any paper or thesis on the novel and its film adaptation.


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