When readers of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi learned it was going to be turned into a movie, I suspect their first question was: how? How do you take such a rich, imaginative story, with themes of spirituality that are more conceptual than tangible, and put them on film? After seeing Ang Lee’s adaptation, the answer becomes oh so clear and we leave the theater not asking how Lee did it, just thankful that he did.
Movie Review: Life of Pi
By Matthew Huntley
November 28, 2012
I recently read and enjoyed Martel’s book. Whether that makes me subconsciously biased toward the film, I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is it exceeded my expectations. And because the movie is so striking and well made, I’m confident it would have been just as engrossing had I not read the source material. Just as Martel did, Lee utilizes simple yet classic storytelling devices, which prove highly effective. With a likeable hero; an incredible conflict; and a thoughtful, moving ending, Life of Pi becomes a film of relentless beauty and energy, the kind we wish would go on forever.
What makes Life of Pi - both the book and film - even more remarkable is that it engages us despite us knowing how it ends. We know, for instance, that Pi, the main character, will survive his lost-at-sea journey because he’s the one narrating it to us. You’d think this information would hinder the story’s efficacy and suspense, but that’s hardly the case, probably because this is hardly your average story.
In the present day, Pi (Irrfan Khan) is a college professor in Montreal , recounting his tale of survival to an author (Rafe Spall) in search of a new idea. He sets it up by telling the author he originally came from a working-class family in the French-occupied area of India called Pondicherry; that his father (Adil Hussain) and mother (Tabu) turned the local botanical gardens into a zoo; that his name is actually short for Piscine (there’s a whole other story that goes along with this, but I’ll let you discover it); how he came to practice Hinduism, Christianity and Islam and that he considers himself a Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time; and that he once loved an Indian dancer named Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath).
We come to care for Pi early on, not least for his zest for and curiosity of life. This leads into the heart of the story, when Pi (Suraj Sharma) is a teenager and his father decides it’s best for the family to leave India and start a new life in Canada. He says they can sell the zoo animals for a higher price in North America, so they pack them aboard a Japanese freighter and set off. However, the ship runs head-on into a perfect storm and only Pi and a few animals manage to escape in a lifeboat. For the next 227 days, Pi must learn to survive on his own, both physically and psychologically.
All this may make Life of Pi sound like just another Cast Away-type story, and in many ways it is, since Pi must make do with limited resources; ration his food and water; learn to fish and go against his vegetarian lifestyle; overcome basic discomforts like the sun, warmth and cold; find new ways to pass the time without going insane from boredom; and, above all, not lose hope. But where this story finds its “life,” so to speak, is with Pi’s company. The animals aboard his lifeboat include a zebra with a broken leg; an orangutan named Orange Juice, who floats over to him on a bunch of bananas; a hungry hyena; and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who sequesters himself under the lifeboat’s tarpaulin until feeding time.
Pi’s relationship and eventual reliance on Richard Parker is the story’s most distinguishing feature and it’s a fascinating one. It starts out, unsurprisingly, hostile and Pi is quick to build a makeshift lifeboat out of oars and life jackets just to keep a safe distance from the tiger. In one of the film’s best scenes, Richard Parker jump out of the boat to catch a fish and Pi gains an upper hand to stock up on supplies as the tiger clings to the side. There’s a mesmerizing shot where he looks down at the tiger’s face and into his eyes, with Richard Parker looking back at him. This is their first glimpse into each other’s souls - when both Pi and Richard Parker sense the other’s vulnerability and accept it’s going to take both of them to survive their ordeal. Pi has no choice but to train Richard Parker and it’s these scenes, in which we simply observe their behavior and watch them react to each other, that prove most captivating, maybe because they stem from the characters’ primal natures and we’re able to feel an instant connection to them.
About the film’s look and special effects, none of them look realistic in the traditional sense, yet none of them look unconvincing. Life of Pi establishes its own glorious world - one that’s bright, shiny and fully of exuberant colors - and asks us to surrender our standard perspective, which we’re happy to do.
There are times when the animals appear digital and others when we know they’re the real deal. Whatever the case, we’re always convinced they and Pi are occupying the same space. There are moments when Richard Parker’s presence is so viable and threatening, we feel like we’re in the boat with him and are able to fully empathize with Pi. The same goes for when he experiences hunger and thirst pains, or when he responds to the glowing fish and whale swimming beneath him, or when an awesome thunderstorm nearly destroys him and Richard Parker. If ever there was a film that made us feel like we were in the same situation as the characters, this is it.
At its heart, Life of Pi is a tale of survival, but Lee and Sharma, who’s fully capable of carrying a film on his own, take it beyond merely simple and straightforward. Like the book, there’s a great spirituality to Pi’s journey and his interpretation of God and faith are put to the ultimate test. It becomes a magnificent and profoundly moving character study, yet it never pushes our buttons or seeks to proselytize. Its intention is to move us and it does that consistently. It’s rare for a film to be so thoroughly compelling that your attention never strays. I found myself fixated on the screen from beginning to end.
When it comes to movies adapted from books, I consciously try to separate the two and view them individually. Should anyone ever ask me which one is better, the book or the film, I ask myself, which medium best serves the story? In the case of Life of Pi, I’d say they’re equal in their effect. I ultimately encourage you to read the book first because then you can see how right Ang Lee and his team of filmmakers got it, and that it probably couldn’t have been done better. On the other hand, the film is a work of art that can easily stand on its own and capture you through its cadence, imagery and emotion. It’s a riveting tale, told in the classic sense, whose story provides us a fresh, new outlook, not just on the power of the movies, but also on life. Not all stories are meant to have that kind of power, but Life of Pi, as book and now a film, does.