a rare case of liking a movie more than a book
It's a young adult book by classification, but that really doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. Some young adult books are vastly more enjoyable and complex than some adult books.
As a general rule, movies based on books are almost never as good as the books themselves. Rarely, a movie is as good as the book, though often such movies are qualified by saying, "Different, but really good." It's very rare to find a book that follows a book pretty well and does a good job of telling the story. Sometimes a movie can deviate immensely from the book and turn out all right. I found the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie entertaining and sweet, and as a stand-alone young-adult movie, it was pretty good. Compared to the first Sisterhood book, it was a very pared-down and possibly even oversimplifed version of the story, but taken on its own merits, it was quite enjoyable. On the flip side, I never saw the movie version of Ella Enchanted, but I've been told that the characters' names and one main plot conceit were all that the movie kept from the book. My sister was displeased, and said that the movie should've been billed as "based on characters from the book Ella Enchanted."
Whale Rider, in movie form, falls somewhere in between these two. There are things that were complicated in the book but simple in the movie; things that are explained further in the movie than they were in the book; and a few changes in characters and points-of-view. This is where it gets unusual, at least in my experience...the movie tells the story better. Blasphemy, I know. But bear with me.
The book is narrated by Rawiri, the uncle of the main character. Rawiri is in the movie, but he plays more of a supporting role. The movie is framed by the point-of-view of Paikea, the young girl whose story really is at the heart of the tale, and it makes SUCH better sense for Pai to narrate. In the book, the girl's name is Kahua te Rangi, not Paikea. They call her Kahu. Now, Kahua te Rangi was the ancestral/mythical whale rider's name, and Paikea was another name by which he was known (from what I gleaned from the book, anyhow). I'm not sure why the movie script was altered to have the girl named Paikea instead of Kahu, but whatever. That's one of those inexplicable movie things (like changing Novalee's number phobia in Where the Heart Is from 7 to 5.)
Paikea/Kahu makes a much more compelling narrator, to me, then Rawiri. Rawiri is a cool character, and he's funny...but it seems odd to be seeing Paikea/Kahu's story from such a distant and detached point-of-view.
Nanny Flowers is Paikea's grandmother...or maybe great-grandmother. In the film, Nanny is clearly Pai's grandmother and Koro Apirana is clearly her grandfather. In the book, it is said that Koro is Pai/Kahu's great-grandfather. I suppose that means that Porourangi (Pai's father) is Koro's grandson. In the film, Koro does not look old enough to be Porourangi's grandfather, which may explain the change. Also, in the book, apparently Koro means something along the lines of "bugger" or "asshole" in Maori. Nanny calls her husband "you old koro" when he pisses her off, and little Paikea/Kahu picks it up and starts calling him "koro." In the movie, the context suggest that Koro is either his name or his title. Anyhow, Nanny Flowers is a cool character in the film, and she's actually a bit cooler in the book. Her periodic threats to divorce Koro and keep Paikea are present in the book, as well as her support of Pai throughout. She is also a lot more strong-willed, and reference is made to her Muriwai blood--inherited from a mythic ancestor who was able to either rule as a man or actually transform herself into a man. In the film, Nanny tells Pai that she has the blood of Muriwai in her veins, and encourages her not to regret being a girl. Nanny is sassier and a bit more of a smartass in the book, and it's enjoyable.
In the film, the whales are referenced in the stories, and Pai changes her mind about leaving her village, makes her father stop the car, and jumps out just in time to see whales breaching nearby. When Pai goes to the sea to call the whales, they arrive and beach, setting up the climax of the film. In the book, the whales actually take a character role. It doesn't work as well as I'd hoped it would, however. The whales are very mystical and highly anthropomorphized. Instead of a gnarly barnacle on the old bull whale's forehead, as depicted in the movie, the old bull whale in the book has a tattoo that "swirls" with "psychic energy" and emits light at times. The old whale also learned how to open footholds and handholds in its hide and create some kind of air pocket for the original Paikea to lie inside while they swam together. I am glad that this was skipped over for the movie. Mysticism is one thing, but whales altering their skins and having glowing psychic tattoos is a bit much.
The beaching is also a much more traumatic scene in the book. Maori men rush to the beach and begin to butcher the dying whales, instead of rallying to save them. It is only later, after Rawiri and his movie-omitted gang of motorcycle buddies go to the beach to run off the butchers, that the villagers gather to try to save the whales.
Finally, the girl Paikea/Kahu is quite different in the book. She is younger, only eight years old at the end of the story. She has no real presence in the book, other than as an odd child, always hanging at the back of the boys' classes and doting on her unresponsive Koro. The movie allows more dimension to Pai's character, and as acted by the breathtaking Keisha Castle-Hughes, she really becomes the heart and soul of the film. The book reveals why Paikea is destined to be a leader, and I'm not sure how I feel about its omission in the film. In a way, it's nice to think that Pai was just born to be the leader/savior of her people. But the book also has a neat mythical angle, in which Pai's birth cord was buried under a tree which was actually--unbeknownst to anyone--the last of the spears the original Paikea threw into the soil, which was meant to sprout and grow only when the people needed it.
Overall, the book was good, but I felt that the characterizations were not as developed as they could've been. No character, not even Rawiri, was written with a lot of depth. He had a good voice, but no real roundness. Koro Apirana is more human in the film. He is still cruel to Pai, but you are allowed to see his fear and his weakness, and moments of tenderness toward the girl. In the book, he's just a mean old grump, pretty much all the time. I also liked the simplifications written into the movie script. I feel that it strengthened the film to focus on Paikea and to leave out some of the more mystical stuff. All in all, I'd recommend Whale Rider as a book, but only if you already like the movie. If you're only going to check out one version of this story, definitely go with the film.