Life of Pi (2012)
More adaptations like this, please.
Life of Pi is the story of a young boy growing up in India with his brother, his parents, and their zoo full of animals. Along the way, he falls for a girl, discovers himself, and finds God through Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. As unusual as it may be, life is pretty good for Pi, that is until his family decides to uproot their life in India to begin a new one in the hockey capital of the world: Canada, eh! Despite Pi’s objections and poor skating abilities, they pack up the animals, get on a ship, and sail across Pacific. As fate would have it, their ship hits a storm, their ship up and capsizes, and next thing he knows, Pi’s on a life boat as the ship’s sole survivor. Once the storm settles, he wakes up to find that he’s not alone. Turns out Richard Parker somehow made it on board, too. As you’ve probably already guessed, Richard Parker’s that Bengal tiger. Suddenly, Canada sounds awesome. As one can imagine, their relationship gets off to a real rocky start, but with both of them in the same boat (HI-OH!), they learn to get along and help each other survive.
When it comes to the book, I love Life of Pi. I hate to admit this, I truly do, but there were times when I would have to sneak into the bathroom at work to read an extra chapter because waiting ’til 5:00 just wasn’t gonna happen for me. I have never done that with a book, but during the week or so that I was reading it, it was all I could freaking think about. I guess that’s why every time I’m asked for a reading suggestion, the answer is always “Life of Pi.” Which, naturally, leads to the question, “Well, what’s it about?” At which point I explain it to the best of my abilities and smile extra hard because this is where things inevitably go South. Then, whaddaya know, they look at me like I told them I just contracted leprosy. Happens every time, but I just can’t help myself. It’s an incredible story, incredibly well-told by Yann Martel, and one of the most utterly original things I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Still, I can see where they’re coming from.
From the outset, this is one unrealistic and totally ridiculous survival story. It’s the kind of story one could imagine ending by page ten with Richard Parker floating along, enjoying his last delicious piece of Pi. And since (surprise!) that doesn’t happen, further explanation of what does in fact happen only serves to either intrigue or confuse. And in my experience, confusion reigns. Like I said: great book, hard sell. But lucky for us, Ang Lee must have been awfully, awfully intrigued.
All the same, it’s a bit weird to me that he made this movie at all. Over a decade has passed since the novel hit shelves, and since no one adapted it at the height of its popularity, I just figured it wouldn’t get made, period. But regardless of how much time has passed or why on Earth it came together now, the fact of the matter is that this is no easy story to adapt in the first place. It’s a boy and a tiger alone on a boat for several hundred pages. Not a lot happens, and when things finally do start happening, they can get pretty damn surreal to say the least. But that’s the beauty of Life of Pi and the medium in which it originated. It works wonderfully as a novel because books afford their authors a creative blank slate to work with. Due to things like script structuring, budget costs, and time restraints, film does not provide that same luxury. As a result, the surreal, unusual nature of this story is what makes both the book so magical and the potential of an adaptation that much harder to envision.
Yet it works.
Back when I first read the book, I vividly remember trying to picture the ways it could translate to film. The thing is, outside of their efforts to keep themselves fed, there ain’t that much happening after Pi and Dick’s ship goes down. A big reason why that didn’t matter is due to Yann Martel’s gifts as a writer. On top of that, a great deal of the story Pi tells is comprised of introspection, of the things that were going through his head while he was alone with only his thoughts and a hungry-ass tiger. It’s also a surprisingly grisly story that refuses to sugarcoat what people are capable of when their options have run out. Not that any of this would make the notion of a movie an unfeasible undertaking, but towards the end, when things start happening, “unfeasible” seemed about right. Sure, it could be filmed, it’s just that I couldn’t imagine this one scene towards the end flying with already-skeptical moviegoers. If you’re familiar with the book, you probably know what I’m talking about.
Yet it works.
You know, it really is pretty amazing what Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee manage to accomplish here. They had a difficult, beloved story to work with, and they truly made it their own while capturing the things that made it magical to begin with. Granted, it’s been a good three years since last read Life of Pi, so my memories of what made it so magical aren’t as vivid as they once were. Had every intention of amending that situation last month, but Anna Karenina saw fit to make sure that definitely wasn’t happening. And as it just so happens, that three year buffer made this experience all the better.
I fondly remembered the big picture of Pi’s life, but I’d forgotten the details along with some of the qualities that made Pi such an enthralling storyteller and protagonist. I’d completely forgotten the role that his faith played in his life, I’d completely forgotten most everything that occurred before the shipwreck. So with such a fuzzy memory going in, it was almost like hearing one of my favorite stories for the first time. And even with my already fond affection towards the novel, it was actually wonderful to have such a small base for comparison.
As you may have heard, the visuals in this movie are astonishing, and I’m happy to report that you can believe the hype. I don’t usually shell out the extra cash for 3D, but, boy howdy, was that a worthwhile investment. Folks, this movie is picturesque, the quality of which you’d expect to find in a freaking gallery. Many a scene left me with my mouth agape and pinching myself to make sure no slipped some E into my Raisinets, and since raving ’til dawn was never my thing, you can believe this sensation was quite the hefty trip. I couldn’t have imagined a more inspired and beautiful way for Lee to fill in the missing the pieces and make this story feel brand new, but, alas, writing about it just doesn’t cut it. Trust the trailer, gang.
But did anyone notice the way certain scenes suddenly switched to a letterboxed aspect ratio then back to normal when it was over? I hope I’m not the only one who noticed that, or else that probably was E in my Raisinets.
At any rate, the visuals aren’t even the best part. The greatest thing that Lee and Magee (great name for a country band, just saying) pull off is that they succeed in making this story as compelling as it is. It is not boring, it is not Castaway with zoo animals. It is engaging from start to finish, and that’s the way it should be. Not only that, but the dynamic and relationship between Pi and Richard Parker is completely convincing from beginning to end, and it never seems weird that the protagonist of our story is stuck on a boat with a Bengal tiger. Might sound crazy, but I kid you not. And if any of you are wondering, no, the tiger doesn’t speak. There is no such thing as a stupid question, and, hey, it’s just that kind of story. Hell, I read the entire book waiting for Richard Parker to speak up.
And while I imagined a younger actor in the role, Suraj Sharma does a really fine job as Pi. Like much of the dialogue he has to work with, his performance gets a tad overenthusiastic at times, but he owns it and that goes a long way. Too bad Gerard Depardieu didn’t have a bigger role, although there isn’t much anyone could have done about that either.
Now, hopefully this review helped my case some, because here goes nothing…
If you’re looking for a great book and you haven’t read Life of Pi, seriously, go read Life of Pi. It’s a true original, it’s one of the all-time greats, and one of the most unforgettable tales about the will of man and the stories we tell. Life is short, take a chance, you’ll be glad you did, you’re welcome. But whether you decide to read it or continue to laugh maniacally at my petty efforts, watching Life is Pi ain’t a bad call either. It’s great in a lot of the same ways the book is, and great in ways that are wholly its own. Its decision to have Pi tell his story to a struggling writer in addition to the ship’s insurance agents strikes me as somewhat redundant, but, man, that is one small fry non-complaint in respect to everything else that’s so fantastic about this. All in all, Life of Pi does justice and then some to the book that inspired it, and with a tall order like this, what else can you really ask for?