In a way, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was the perfect novel to adapt into a film. Its pages are loaded with the kind of spectacle, self-consciously weighty themes and timeless quality that lends itself well to the Hollywood blockbuster treatment.
On the other hand, the story of Pi Patel is also heavily concerned, even obsessed, with literary form and metafictional introspection, which would be a challenge for any filmmaker to convey cinematically. To his credit, director Ang Lee mostly rises to the occasion, delivering a creation that simultaneously teases our brains, tugs at our heartstrings and wows us with imagery that will stick with viewers for years to come.
The film starts off in Pondicherry, India, where we are introduced to Piscine “Pi” Patel and his family. His father, we soon learn, is a naturalist who considers himself a part of the “New India,” namely one that has jettisoned spirituality in the name of science in accordance with Western culture. His mother, on the other hand, is a religious woman who maintains her Hindu beliefs as a bulwark against Westernization.
It is apparent early on that Pi is his mother’s child, possessing a ravenous appetite for metaphysical enlightenment that knows no boundaries, drawing simultaneously from Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Our protagonist, like all “seekers,” is on a mission to find God.
Pi’s life is upended when economic circumstances force his father, the owner and proprietor of a local zoo, to seek opportunity in the far-off land of Canada, much to the chagrin of Pi, who has no desire to leave the land of his birth. As it turns out, neither character gets their way.
As fate (or God) would have it, the vessel on which the Patel family and their menagerie are traveling is capsized in a terrible storm. Pi manages to escape aboard a lifeboat, but his entire family is killed in the shipwreck. Not exactly a Hollywood beginning.
The titular character’s struggle for survival on a 26-foot lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger from his father’s zoo named Richard Parker, which makes up the meat of the film, is for the most part successful. The plot occasionally drags, and one wonders if Life of Pi would have been better served with a shorter running time than its hefty 127 minutes.
Fortunately, Ang Lee prevents our attention from drifting too far with a steady stream of maritime incidents that astound, and at times, test the resolve of our protagonists, while providing us with images of breathtaking visual wonder. Pi’s adventure goes off the rails towards the end, when he finds himself stranded on a bizarre island that makes for a great set piece (fans of Timon from Disney’s The Lion King will find much to love), but is not necessary to the narrative and dilutes the hard-hitting impact of Pi’s travails at sea.
Life of Pi is at its best when it gets out of its own way and lets the audience immerse itself in the at times wondrous–and at others nightmarish–experience of its shipwrecked protagonist. His struggle to tame a ravenous tiger that would just as soon tear out his throat as snatch a fish from his hand is loaded with suspense.
Over the course of the film we, like Pi, go from seeing the tiger as a dangerous predator to an erstwhile feline companion. The same can be said for the abundance of aquatic life that periodically surfaces to keep the boy and the tiger company.
Yet, never does Ang Lee allows the bond between man and beast to get lost in sentimentality. Richard Parker remains wild until the end, a source of danger that keeps Pi on his toes even as he warms his way into his (and the audience’s) heart.
And then, in one of the film’s key thematic moments, Pi is forced to give up his vegetarianism in the name of survival. It is difficult to decide whether to laugh or cry when the tragically gentle Pi offers a sincere apology to a fish before going on to devour it with the unrestrained enthusiasm of a starving animal. This is one of many instances when Life of Pi splices together humor and tragedy, sentimentality and pragmatism, to memorable effect.
Unfortunately, not all of Pi‘s disparate elements come together. The film is at its worst when it gets bogged down in literary conceits that work far better on page than in a film. This is particularly the case when it comes to Martel’s metafictional elements.
The most apt example comes near the film’s conclusion, when we are invited to consider the possibility that Pi’s unlikely tale represents the attempts of the human mind to grapple with traumatic events by converting them into metaphor.
This is an intriguing concept that works well on-page, when we, like the inspiration-starved author that is our in-text stand in, are experiencing the events second-hand as they are recounted to us by a man who is far from a reliable source.
However, when we have watched the events unfold in such painstaking detail for over half of the film’s running time, the suggestion that it was all imaginary robs the film of its well-earned sense of wonder and feels more like a cheap gimmick than a bold idea. The effect is something akin to watching The Jungle Book only for Mowgli to wake up at the climax of the film to announce that his whole experience was a dream.
Add in a sappy Hollywood ending and one wishes that Life of Pi concluded when its protagonist found himself washed up on the shore of civilization. But then, that would have required deviating from the source material, something that would no doubt anger fans of the novel more concerned with seeing their beloved book represented on screen than in watching a movie that constitutes its own separate creative entity.
All that being said, Ang Lee is a skilled enough director that his adaptation fares well in spite of its occasional missteps. Life of Pi is loaded with a visual splendor and effortless drama that redeems it, and is a film worthy of praise for the many things that it gets right.
Pi’s story may not make you believe in God, as he claims, but it will go some way towards restoring your faith in Hollywood blockbusters, provided they are helmed by directors of Ang Lee’s caliber.