The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Book & Film Adaptation)

Classification: Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Cultural identity, Maori, whales, sexism

Ages 12+

 “[The whale] is a reminder of the oneness the world once had.  It is the birth cord joining past and present, reality and fantasy.  It is both.  It is both…and if we have forgotten the communion then we have ceased to be Maori.” ~ from The Whale Rider

Summary:  Deep in the ocean, an ancient bull whale guides his herd through increasingly treacherous waters.  He grows sick with nostalgia for his master Paikea, the whale rider, with whom the old whale shared a special communion.  But generations ago, Paikea left the sea to people the land of Whangara on the east coast of New Zealand.  Depressed and confused, the whale begins to lead his herd toward the beach where he last saw Paikea.  Meanwhile, Paikea’s descendants are in turmoil for they are in need of a new leader.  Koro Apirana, the aging patriarch of the Maori tribe, is determined to school the young men of his community in the old ways.  Koro’s wife Nanny Flowers and his grandson Rawiri look on as Koro continually ignores his small great-granddaughter Kahu, whose given name is the same as Paikea’s traditional tribal name:  Kahutia Te Rangi.  Though only a child, Kahu demonstrates all the wisdom and skills Koro seeks in the tribe’s next leader, but Koro insists a girl is not meant to fill the role.  When the whale herd’s destiny collides with that of the tribe’s and little Kahu is caught in the middle, Koro Apirana is forced to choose between the old ways and a new future.

Notes:  Told alternately from Rawiri’s and the bull whale’s point of view with Maori verse woven in at key points, this story resonates through land and sea with the haunting quality of a whale’s cry in the deep.  When Koro tells a tale to his gathered people, he asks if his story “belongs in the real world or the unreal world?”  “Both,” he insists.  This novel too straddles legend and truth, fact and fiction, in the way of great literature.
5 Flags

Whale Rider (South Pacific Films, 2002)
Director: Niki Caro
Main Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Rating: PG-13

Viewer’s Annotation:  A young Maori girl, Pai Apirana is committed to helping her community preserve the ways of their ancestors even though her grandfather, the tribe’s chief, refuses to teach Pai because she is a girl.

Synopsis:  Koro Apirana’s visible and devastating disappointment that his grandchild is a girl causes 12-year-old Pai to struggle to hold her head up around the stern man.  Though Koro has two sons, he will be the last chief of his tribe unless a new leader emerges.  Determined to find such a leader, Koro trains all of the tribe’s boys in the ways of their people, the descendants of Paikea the Whale Rider.  Banished from Koro’s school, Pai still learns the chants and skills, surpassing the boys in every area and winning a regional speech contest with an essay about her Maori culture.  Unmoved, Koro continues to ignore Pai.  When a pod of whales beach themselves, the whole community despairs, for the hopelessness of the whales seems to mirror the tribe’s situation.  Only Pai is able to pull everyone, even the whales, through the tragedy.

Review:  With incredible acting from the entire cast, this film is deeply moving, depicting the tension between tradition and change for a community whose very identity is threatened by modern culture. 
5 Flags

Book or Movie?  Either.  One of the rare instances when each is outstanding.  What I do love about the book that is not translated to film is the bull whale’s development as a character.  On the other hand, the film brings to life the Maori community, from the eager young boys Koro trains, to Nanny’s card-playing, covert-smoking friends.

Why I chose this book and film:  I suppose I was drawn back to this story after hearing about the Sea World whale trainer who lost her life a couple weeks ago, but the story is an excellent read for Women’s History Month for its themes of sexism, self-discovery and leadership. 

I fell in love with the movie when I saw it in a theater years ago, and I read the book within days of viewing the film.  I saw the movie with my dad, who is Filipino, born and raised in Hawaii.  I never knew my dad’s father who passed away when my dad was a teenager, but from the stories I’ve heard he was not unlike Koro Apirana. 

I know a bit of Maori culture–brief history, a few songs, dances, and poi ball tricks–from the days when I was a hula and Polynesian dancer, but this story is familiar for more than the chanting and the musical swish of rapaki.  It is the sad story of indigenous people the world over, whether they are islanders or not, and their struggle to retain a sense of themselves in a global community that trivializes all they hold dear. 

For more about Witi Ihimaera and Maori culture, click here and here.



Filed under Adult Fiction, Books & Their Films, YA Literature

2 responses to “The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Book & Film Adaptation)

  1. Julie

    Hi there,
    I read your review of Witi Ihimaera’s ‘The Whale Rider’ and wondered whether you might be interested in asking Witi Ihimaera a question about this book? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything – doesn’t have to be particularly clever!), along with where you’re from/live. We can either arrange for you to talk to Witi Ihimaera himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
    Best wishes,
    BBC World Book Club


    A thrilling book but and as been chosen as a Set book in Kenyan secondary school.Is it possible to get notes for my Literature students.