The Life of Pi has often been considered an “unfilmable” book, and I’m not sure if that’s because the bulk of the story is given by the protagonist’s monologue and has almost no interaction with other human characters, or because it’s an ocean-bound tale with animals playing major roles. In either case, director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has taken on quite a challenge in bringing Yann Martel’s award-winning novel — about a young Indian boy who endures a long and harrowing time at sea on a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger for company — to the big screen (and in 3D no less). Lee has succeeded in creating a visual masterpiece that is impressive to look at and experience. Everything from the amazing sunsets, to crashing storms, to a sea full of phosphorescent jellyfish, and cresting humpback whale look incredible. Despite the fact that a lot of the movie was probably shot in a studio water tank, the expansive feeling of being adrift on the ocean was very real. I don’t know how much of the animal “acting” was the work of animal trainers versus computer artists, but considering how essential animals are to the story, it was an impressive achievement either way. Like the novel, this film is a very engaging experience.
In preparation for seeing this film, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the novel (which I had read and loved many years ago). Unfortunately the result of that was that I was a little disappointed in the movie because it did not adequately capture the spirit of the book. At the heart of the story was the connection and relationship between the protagonist, Pi Patel, and the tiger, Richard Parker (yes, that’s the tiger’s name). The movie cut a few corners in terms of dramatizing the struggles that Pi went through to establish his position of dominance over Richard Parker. Similarly, without some of the narrated thoughts from Pi that were in the novel, it’s not as obvious how Pi’s feelings towards Richard Parker were changing to more than just the predator-prey, master-pet relationships typical to humans and animals. At the end of the movie there was an important moment of narration that is kept from the book as Pi and Richard Parker part ways. It’s meant to be a very sad and profound moment, but I didn’t feel it when watching the movie as I did when reading the book because the connection had not been made between the boy and the tiger.
Partly the acting of Pi (by newcomer Suraj Sharma) was to blame. He didn’t have many lines, but I was annoyed by how he would yell practically all of them at the top of his voice (“No!!!!”). It even became an issue of believability when he was supposed to be extremely exhausted, I didn’t believe that he’d have the energy to yell like that, but there he went again. Since Sharma is so new to acting, perhaps the blame is on Lee as the director. Perhaps the yelling was his choice rather than the actor’s. In contrast, Irrfan Khan (a very experienced actor who was recently in The Amazing Spider-man) gave a wonderfully tranquil and cool performance as the adult Pi. I would have loved to have spent hours hearing this larger-than-life story told by him. He exudes a kind of serenity that managed to restore some of the spiritual depth that the rest of the scenes had left out.
To be fair, the book carries with it a lot of wonder and soulfulness that is tough to convey on screen. Perhaps if Lee had taken more creative licence to make the movie more magical and less realistic, he could have preserved some of that feeling of spirituality. Khan’s adult Pi tells the author who is interviewing him that his story is supposed to make the author believe in God. The author is skeptical, and by the end we don’t see that he’s had much of an epiphany. I have a hard time thinking that anyone would find this movie as transcendent as the story itself could be. If you’ve read the book, I highly recommend the movie as a wonderful visual companion. See it in 3D for an immersive experience. If you haven’t, I suggest you give the book a try first (and better yet, listen to the audiobook). It will make the movie feel much richer when you eventually watch it. 4 out of 5