Ang Lee’s filmography is characterized by its apparent absence of continuity, mostly because the majority films are literary adaptations – 9 films out of 15 -, based on novels very different from one another.[1] If we want to consider Ang Lee as an auteur from a romantic perspective that is a director with a “signature” in his adaptations, a guiding principle, one must question is that is the “right” conception of an auteur.

I will focus on two of his recent work, Lust, Caution (2007) and Life of Pie (2012). Lust, Caution is based on 1979 a novel by controversial Chinese writer Eileen Chang occurring in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1940s, telling the struggle of the young woman Chiah-chi, who has been chosen to seduce Mr. Yee, a torturer and collaborator with the Japanese enemy. Life of Pi, written by Yann Martel, is mostly set on sea, telling the story of a shipwrecked teenager on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. Both of these adaptations were a commercial success and award-winners. Lee won the Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Lust, Caution, and it grossed $67 million worldwide. As for Life of Pi, it grossed $454m worldwide by 2013.[2]

Comparing an adaptation and a film is interesting yet it is incomparable because literature and cinema are both different languages, hence Linda Hutcheon’s comparison with translation: “translation is not a rendering of some fixed nontextual meaning to be copied or paraphrased or reproduced; rather, it is an engagement with the original text that makes us see that text in different ways.”[3] It is therefore Ang Lee’s engagement that we will study, his interpretation of a text, at least if he manages to have his own. Motion pictures are per se a collaborative media, therefore implying the involvement of other people in the making process than the director; can they be equally qualified as auteurs of the film? This question is even more complicated when it is a novel adaptation, since it has already a literary auteur.

I will first try to define the notion of auteur. Are authorship and adaptations compatible? Then I will discuss the “signature,” more specifically whether the range of freedom Ang Lee had making those films. Lastly I will discuss the notions of pragmatic authorship and branding. Pragmatic authorship looks at the making of the film in order to study the film as a contingencies of economic factors, the director, the personnel implicated in the filmmaking and art. Branding studies the “signature,” or the director’s name as a brand, a “guarantee of quality,” since Ang Lee is an award-winner.

This search for circumscribing the adaptation as an authorship raises many definitional questionings: “That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transformation of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?” This statement could also apply to cinema, and literary adaptations. The process is the selective transformation of a novel to re-shape it.


First, let us go back to the birth of the notion of auteur. This notion of auteur in films was mostly theorized in France in the 1950s and 1960s by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics. They defined the auteur as an individual imposing his own personal style and signature in his films, through formal style or recurring patterns, e.g. Hitchcock and the topic of the repression of desires can be found in Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marni (1964). Like the auteur of a novel, the auteur of a film was the genius from who exuded the screenplay, the style, the characters. Alexandre Astruc coined the term caméra-stylo (camera-pen), comparing the screen to a piece of paper and the director as an author. Godard even said: “The cinema is an art … It does not mean team work. One is always alone on the set as before the blank page.” It is therefore a romantic vision of the auteur, where the director-auteur is the Creator. However, as said in the introduction, film is per se a collaborative media, since it implies a large number of personnel, as we will see in the two adaptations I focus on.

In his essay “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,”[4] François Truffaut criticized the literary adaptations because for him it was simply a “mere illustration,” and not a “mise-en-scène,” meaning that adaptations and auteur are not compatible. Adaptions are commonly despised, accused of being pale copies of masterpieces, bringing them down to low-brow, popular products of consumptions, firstly because “writing a screenplay based on a great novel is foremost a labour of simplification.”[5]  As Linda Hutcheon explains: “It is the (post-) Romantic valuing of the original creation and of the originating creative genius that is clearly one source of the denigration of adapters and adaptations.”[6]  Furthermore, if one tries to apply this notion of authorship to Ang Lee, we can see that adaptations are not considered worthy of the auteur’s work title. Therefore, one is to ask if Lee’s adaptations are compatible with authorship, in the sense of a “signature/style”. If we want to find recurring patterns, Life of Pi and Lust, Caution (and all of Lee’s films) include ambiguity and drama. In Life of Pi, the spectator is manipulated to believe he is seeing a fabulous tale until he is brutally brought back to reality with Pi’s gruesome explanation and direct address: “Which story do you prefer?” In Lust, Caution, the tension and ambiguity relies on Chia-chih’s and Mr. Yee’s performances: is she lying? Is she being herself? Why does she save Yee? Does Yee suspect her? Does he have genuine feelings for her? As Gina Marchetti explains “unlike Chang, who fills in all the blanks in her novella, Lee leaves the film viewer with questions.”[7] Thus, each filmmaker can decides how narrow of wide the margin of interpretation is left for the spectator. Furthermore, the filmmaker can also add his own hidden mark or pattern:The ending of the film, (the Chia-chih and her spy fellows facing the precipice) could be understood as a pattern of Lee since we find a similar ending in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) when the heroine jumps in the void.[8]

Moreover, as Hucheon points out, adaptations are appealing for audiences because they call for remembrance and curiosity on how the book was transposed on screen. Therefore adaptations are also financially significant.[9] Lust, Caution and Life of Pie are both famous pieces of work, therefore producing them is a low-risk investment. As for Life of Pi, Elizabeth Gabler, the Fox 2000 President, was interested in adapting the book before it became a best seller; indeed, it was optioned even before it was published.[10] It changes the traditional dynamic of novel adaptations, implying that contemporary novels can be written in the purpose of becoming adapted, in the purpose of grossing more money. Fox was sure to adapt it when the book became a best-seller in 2002 and Lee was offered to be the director in 2007.[11]

The financial appeal of these adaptations and their apparent facility (transposing the story of a pre-existing source written by a literary auteur on screen) could make Lee’s work appear as simple financially successful super-productions with no real artistic attempt from him. However the notion of pragmatic authorship seeks to study the concrete making of the films (financially and technically) in order to determine if, put together, those elements create an artistic outcome.


The pragmatic conception of authorship sees the film not as the product of a sole genius but as a collaborative media shaped by economic contingencies.According to Paul Watson, the notion of author should meet a middle between the romantic idea (the Creator) and the complete erasure. This approach “accounts for both the artistic and commercial concerns of filmmaking.”[12] This methodology looks at “the craft of filmmaking, that is to say, the ways in which the director deploys film technique in precise ways within specific conditions to achieve innovation.”[13]  Ang Lee asked his teams to deploy tremendous means both in Lust, Caution and in Life of Pie. In Lust Caution, film decorators were asked to reconstruct Nanking West Road Shanghai with life-sized elements, as close as possible to what it was like in 1942.[14]  For  Life of Pi, Lee felt that 3-D was the only way for him to transcribe this fabulous odyssey. “There are a lot of elements in the book that are chasing each other, parallel, conflicting… I did my research and realised [using 3D] on water would make people feel immersed. [3D is] a new cinematic language and when you have something new you open up to more chances and more unconventional thoughts.”[15] Indeed, it would have been impossible and too dangerous to film a real tiger on a boat. Pi’s fantastic and dreamy telling of the ocean was not compatible with a realistic setting. Richard Parker (the tiger) was created based on real tigers, and for the first time the 3-D could reproduce with exactitude the least details of the tiger.

The book Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Films,[16] collects the original novel, the screenplay and the testimonies of all the participants in the film, acknowledging the multiple authorial voices and collective participation. This approach constitutes the necessary signature of the adaptation in order to fulfill the respect for the original author. Indeed, one is to ask if Ang Lee makes his decisions alone. Are those decisions due to economic factors/ are they artistically motivated? Can those elements combine each other?

Lust, Caution and Life of Pi are both big budget films based on famous best sellers. In his preface for Lust, Caution, Ang Lee writes: “Making our film, we didn’t really ‘adapt’ Zhang’s work, we simply kept returning to her theatre of cruelty and love until we had enough to make a movie of it.”[17] It is important to notice here that Ang Lee says “we” and not “I” meaning that he conceives himself as a collaborative director. Lee explains how Chang’s work echoed his own experience and how he could re-use to transpose it onto his film. “When I read that, my mind raced back to my own first experience on stage, back in 1973 at the Academy of Art in Taipei: the same rush of energy at the end of the play … I realized how that experience was central to Zhang’s work, and how it could be transformed into film.”[18] Again, this statement highlights the size of this margin of interpretation in which each filmmaker is to include his own mark and therefore, translate his own interpretation of a literary work like the reader does while reading. It rejoins what Roland Barthes says about the auteur or rather the death of the auteur: the meaning of the text lies more in the reader than from the auteur. Here, Lee transposes his own personal experience of theatre onto Chia-chih/Tang Wei, who is an impersonation of his own vision of Chang’s text.

It is acknowledged that Ang Lee transformed the original story by romanticizing it: “Ang Lee … tells a different story, and has been romanced by his own cinematic version of Chang’s more jaded tale: ‘After Brokeback and this one, I do believe deeply inside that I am a romantic.”[19] In Life of Pi, a teenage romance was included in the film (Pi and Anandi), but I would argue that it adds nothing to the plot. One can wonder if romanticization is indeed a mark of Lee’s signature or a commercial obligation. The character of Chia-chih is also romanticized because “Lee focuses almost all of the emotional weight on the heroine, Wang Chia-chih, and in doing so, removes a large part of the cynicism and condescension towards her character.”[20] This choice is of course the craft of the interpreter of the story and constitutes a new layer to the original piece: “The actor’s creative cognition lends an alternative perspective in which to view the director’s contributions… In short, film art is the result of more than one kind of artistic contribution.”[21]


Life of Pi involved a tremendous number of people. This caption at the end of the credits expresses this titanic endeavor: “The making and legal distribution of this film supported over 14,000 jobs and involved over 600,000 work hours.” This clearly demonstrates that pragmatic authorship and branding are more to be adapted to the conveniences of the recent filmmaking techniques. Lee had reservations about making Life of Pi because it is mostly set at sea, with long moments of philosophical reflection punctuated with hardships due to hunger and survival. However it corresponds to Ang Lee’s recurring patterns and style. Ride with the Devil (1999) a Western/Civil war film, was more about the main characters’ introspection than about gunpowder. Gabler, the producer “wondered if it would be an easily identifiable film. As the months went on and it became a bestseller, there was something very identifiable about the story.”[22] This sentence illustrates well that the film is a marketing product, and the aim is to simplify the novel to reach as many people as possible. It reminds of the box-office failure of Ride with the Devil, whose indefinite genre Western-Civil War-Melodrama did not convince the audiences because not easily identifiable.

“Ang is the most collaborative person in the world as much as a master film-maker can be,” says Gabler. “So much of his vision is in his mind so you have to give him the liberty to let it unveil itself. John Frow, “Signature and Brand”:

Signature studied through the prism of branding is a “guaranty” Ang Lee as a brand

“the signature has become intrinsic both to aesthetic and to market value.” Frow, 60.

Signature = “copyright” and “moral right.” Forw, 60.

“The signature constitutes the rarity that is the source of market value.” Frow, 61.


“He gave me the screenplay early and showed us early cuts and was collaborative in that way. He led the team – he produced the movie and was in charge of every decision on the film.”

As a leader, Ang selects the proposals that suit his vision of the story “The truth of it is, this entire company from every level stood behind me on this movie. The reaction we have had so far is a validation of Ang’s vision and all the hard work of everyone who was involved.”



To conclude, adaptations are always betrayed. The adaption process reminds us of the painter who uses a photography to create his own canvas oil painting: when his painting is finished, the inspiring picture and the painting are different and the painter adds his own signature. (These two art-pieces are thus completely different, one had only inspired the other.) And the filmmaker adds his own signature at the end of the film. “signatures stand as metonyms of an originating author or artist, even though the making of any work of art involves an extended number of participants and a complex commercial apparatus.”[23] I would see Lee as an auteur in the sense of a chef d’orchestre.






[1] Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Ride with the Devil (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hulk (2002), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007), Taking Woodstock (2009), Life of Pie (2012).

[2] Jeremy Kay, “Life of Pi: Eye of the Tiger,” Screen International, (January 2013), retrieved from

[3] Linda Hutcheon, “Beginning to Theorize Adaptation: What? Who? Why? How? Where? When?,” in A Theory of Adaptation, (New York: Routledge, 2006), 16.

[4] François Truffaut, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” (1954), in The French New Wave. Critical Landmarks eds. Peter Graham and Ginette Vincendeau (BFI, New Edition, 2009), 17-23.

[5] Hutcheon, 1.

[6] Hutcheon, 4.

[7] Gina Marchetti, “Eileen Chang and Ang Lee at the Movies: The Cinematic Politics of Lust, Caution,” in Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures, and Genres, ed. Kam Louie, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012), 150.

[8] Marchetti, 132.

[9] Hutcheon, 7.

[10] Kay.

[11] Kay.

[12] Watson, 155.

[13] Watson, 155.

[14] David Lee, “Nanking West Road Shanghai, 1942: Built to Order,” in Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay and the Making of the Film, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 421

[15] Lee in Kay.

[16] Eileen Chang, Wang Hui Ling, and James Schamus, Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007).

[17] Ang Lee, “Preface,” in Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay and the Making of the Film, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 8.

[18] Lee, 10-11.

[19] Marchetti, 135.


[21] Johannes Riis, “Can Involuntary Contributions Be Authored? A Note on the Actor’s Art,” in Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality in Media, eds. Torben Grodal, Bente Larsen and Iben Thorving Laursen (Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2004), 100.

[22] Elizabeth Gabler in Kay.

[23] Frow, 71.



Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Theories of Authorship edited by John Caughie, 208-213. London: Routledge, 1999.

Chang, Eileen, Wang Hui Ling, and James Schamus. Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.

Frow, John. “Signature and Brand.” In High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment, edited by Jim Collins, 56-74. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Hutcheon, Linda.“Beginning to Theorize Adaptation: What? Who? Why? How? Where? When?” In A Theory of Adaptation, 1-32. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Kay, Jeremy. “Life of Pi: Eye of the Tiger.” Screen International, January 2013. Retrieved from

Marchetti, Gina. “Eileen Chang and Ang Lee at the Movies: The Cinematic Politics of Lust, Caution.” In Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures, and Genres, edited by Kam Louie, 131-54. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Edinburgh, London and New York: Cannongate, 2003.

Naremore, James. “Authorship.” In A Companion to Film Theory, edited by Toby Miller and Robert Stam. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Blackwell Reference Online. 03 April 2015 <;

Watson, Paul. “Cinematic Authorship and the Film Auteur.” In Introduction to Film Studies, edited by Jill Nemes, 142-164. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.






Lee, Ang. Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Ride with the Devil (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hulk (2002), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007), Taking Woodstock (2009), Life of Pie (2012).