Postcolonial Text / Author

Book and Film Review

The Whale Rider
Witi Ihimaera
Toronto, Harcourt Brace, 2003
152 pages
ISBN 0-15-205016-7

The Whale Rider
dir. Niki Caro
Odeon Films, 2003.

A new edition of Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 novel The Whale Rider accompanies the 2003 film. The book’s front cover describes it as “[t]he triumphant novel that inspired the award-winning movie”; on the back appears a list of three of the nine awards the film has won so far: the 2003 Sundance Festival World Cinema Audience Award, the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award and the 2003 Rotterdam International Film Festival Canal Plus Audience Award. The book’s cover also provides five pictures of Keisha Castle-Hughes, the actress who plays Paikea (a young girl who, despite her gender, turns out to be the next in a line of Maori leaders). All of the film references on the book’s cover invite us to collapse the novel and the film and to relax into a dreamy vision of Maoriness based on the lucent young actress. But novel and film have somewhat different emphases and The Whale Rider is not only a star-making vehicle for a talented child.

Ihimaera’s novel, like some of his short stories, is deceptively simple. He sets the reader up to expect a children’s story in an author’s note in which he observes that he wrote this feminist myth with his young daughters in mind. However, one quickly realises that Ihimaera’s language is strategically crafted. He mimics orature in his use of descriptive “tags” to help drive plot and trigger memory (for example, many things are described as “spearing” in order to remind us of a spear thrown by the ancient Paikea). Ihimaera’s language also suggests the way one might (re)tell myth:  plot is given with retroactive hints that this story’s tribulations occurred for a reason and that things have ended as they should (for example, “Koro Apirana, however, was not so amused, and now I understand why”) (36). 

Ihimaera bases his fictionalized myth (a contemporary female descendant of an ancient line becomes the next whale rider) on a real Ngati Konohi myth (Paikea’s canoe overturns on the trip from Hawaiki to Aotearoa; a whale rescues him and takes him to Whangara beach where Paikea then settles). Ihimaera tries to do two things: teach the original myth and update it, showing the relevance of the old stories in a contemporary world. Despite an educational Maori glossary and relatively extensive passages describing the myth of the whale rider, the “real” story is often subsumed by contemporary details and characters. However, Ihimaera does persuasively argue the relevance of the old ways in the contemporary world; he suggests that traditional stories provide guidelines for living which enable self-esteem, community prosperity and environmental conservation. Ihimaera’s use of myth, particularly the retroactive telling of the story, also suggests that bad times (such as colonialism and its aftermath) will pass. His novel’s four main sections are described as seasons, enhancing a sense of the inevitability of cycles. 

Seasons are largely omitted in the film, in which the weather and scenery are consistently wonderful (so much so that it is no surprise that the New Zealand Tourism Board website has links to the movie and the Gisborne/ Whangara area in which it was filmed). With the loss of Ihimaera’s emphasis on seasons, the film loses some of the sense of the inevitable progression of time. A more notable loss in the film (perhaps because of the expense of creating animatronic bodies) is the whales. In the novel, much of the whale rider myth comes from the whales themselves, and particularly from their leader, the still-living ancient bull whale ridden by the first Paikea. The novel describes this whale’s struggles to deal with the difference between his memories of the way things were when people collaborated with animals and the way  they are now. The bull whale must try to protect his population from whale hunters, as well as from undersea environmental disasters like the radiation caused by weapons testing at Moruroa.  (Ihimaera’s writing about the challenges faced by the whales is not unlike Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone in which elephants also try to reconcile traditional behaviors with the realities of contemporary predation.)

In the novel, both the contemporary Paikea and her grandfather Koro Apirana are likened to the elderly bull whale (the former loses her mother at a young age, as the whale does; the latter is less sensible than he should be, as the whale is when, bound up in nostalgia for the old Paikea, he beaches himself and his population at Whangara.) The link with the whale makes Apirana slightly more interesting, but in both film and book his one-dimensional cantankerousness is unremitting. The novel’s obese, florid Nanny Flowers comes close to being a caricature; the film’s less colourful version (played by Vicky Haughton) is thankfully much more nuanced. In the novel, in which the story is told mostly from her uncle Rawiri’s perspective, Paikea is very much a child, albeit an unusual one. In the film as told from Paikea’s perspective, she is preternaturally gifted and acts as though older and wiser than the adults around her.

In voice-overs, the film’s child-savant Paikea tells the whale rider myth; she is thus made to be its main instrument in the contemporary world rather than, as the novel implies, a well-integrated part of a complex and unfolding Maori story. In both the film and the book, Paikea becomes the symbol for all that is possible as Maori culture revives, evolves and gains strength. However, the film often presents Maori culture with predictable, overcharged and heavy-handed sentimentalism. The scene in which Koro Apirana accidentally breaks the rope he has used as an example of Maori lineage is a contrived  example (especially when the always attentive Paikea ties a knot in the rope, making it “whole” and functional again). And yet, the film is powerful, perhaps because, despite its sometimes choking sweetness, it presents a Maori New Zealand that is not trapped in the kind of violent struggle represented in films like Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (which is also based on a novel).

Though film rights to The Whale Rider were bought shortly after the book was written, the film was not produced until this year. Perhaps it took filming The Lord of The Rings in New Zealand to get the local film industry to back a visual spectacle with no “gritty urban social realism” and to get New Zealanders to recognise how alluring their own landscape and traditions are. Perhaps, as New Zealand film reviewer Diana Bagnall suggests, “things are getting better ... young New Zealanders are more comfortable in their skin, whatever colour that might be.” The film’s significance within New Zealand is evidenced by websites suggesting how the film could be used in schools (one site is linked from the film’s official web page). The cynic in me wonders if the overwhelmingly positive international reactions to the film at festivals like those at Sundance, Toronto and Rotterdam, suggest something about “western” viewers; perhaps the “western” world would so much like to be convinced that indigenous populations can recover from European settlement that a movie celebrating traditional Maoriness in a contemporary context relieves our consciences.

Reviewed by Antje M. Rauwerda, Saint Mary’s University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)