Director Ang Lee’s highly anticipated film adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 best-seller Life of Pi is a generally successful attempt to bring the highly literary story to the big screen.
The novel was a moving fable of humanity and faith; the film’s primary marketing angle, however, was to present the story as an adventure tale — which it certainly is, to a degree. But the strength of the film, as in the novel, rests in its more contemplative side. Along with the classic tale of the boy and a tiger comes a second, more gruesome story.
Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel grows up as a Hindu like his parents, but with his inquisitive spirit he discovers both Christianity and Islam. His curiosity and devotion help him overcome his father’s disapproval. Aside from his spiritual flexibility, he has as normal a life as any boy who lives in a zoo. On the first day of secondary school, he renames himself “Pi” after some bullying spurred by an unfortunate pun based on a mispronunciation of his name. The action begins when Pi’s life is uprooted from India. His family decides to move to Canada and the ship on which they, and an assortment of zoo animals, leave sinks. Pi ends up in a lifeboat with several castaway friends, notably Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. The rest of the movie details Pi’s arduous journey as he tries to maintain hope and train his tiger.
Given the nature of the medium, the film is at an inherent disadvantage in its attempt to be as effective as the book. Readers have the opportunity to reflect on their personal beliefs throughout, while viewers are limited to a more constricted view bound by Lee’s vision. Unfortunately for Lee, this particular story benefits from the intimate setting of a book. Basically, always read the book first.
Still, film has its advantages. Lee provides an intensely visual experience. With Richard Parker’s flawless CGI, you could almost see right through to his feline soul. A magical island inhabited by meerkats is conjured like the mirage it might be. Drifting through a sea of fluorescent jellyfish, illuminated by a golden sunset, Pi’s breathtaking environment nearly compensates for his constant hunger and terror. Even in his wasted state, Pi is able to appreciate his surroundings. Since viewers, unlike Pi, do not have to worry about physical distress, the film’s visual feast provides a veritable delight.
The famed director wields his artistic license in shifting some things, such as removing a humorous scene in which Pi’s pandit, priest, and imam fight over him. Lee has earned it after mastering almost every genre of film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; Hulk). Regardless of this English major’s rants about the loss of print, Lee must be applauded for adapting what has been called an unfilmable novel.