Review – Life Of Pi

Digital effects have come a long way since Yann Martel’s adored novel Life of Pi was first published in 2001, without which director Ang Lee’s efforts to bring this supposedly unfilmable book to the big screen would have been scattered on the rocks.

Ang Lee's Life of Pi

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi – far from a shipwreck which, for an ‘unfilmable’ tale is no small achievement

It’s an achievement in itself by David Magee to turn Martel’s prose into a screenplay and Lee, in his first film since the passable Taking Woodstock (2009) deserves a lot of credit for realising on screen the many wonders Pi (Suraj Sharma) witnesses during his epic journey.

Certainly in the past, many effects-laden films have sacrificed the things which should come first – a good script and good performances – for the sake of an attention-grabbing shot or action sequence. Lee for his part seems to have learned a thing or two about finding the right balance since falling into that trap with the disengaging Hulk in 2003.

The biggest challenge facing Lee was to give us a convincing Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger that, like the titular Pi, finds itself on a Japanese cargo ship on its way across the Pacific to start a new life in Canada.

Pi (Suraj Sharma) braves the storm in Life of Pi

Pi (Suraj Sharma) braves the storm in Life of Pi

Except neither the teenage Pi nor Richard Parker have any say in this. Piscine Militor Patel, or Pi as he prefers to be known after being given the unwanted nickname ‘Pissing’ Patel at school is happy living in the zoo his family owns in Pondicherry, India. Seeking a new life for them all, his father closes the zoo and books passage on a ship for both his family and animals, which will be sold abroad.

In a scene both vivid and distressing, the ship sinks after getting caught in a terrible storm. Pi is the only human to make it off the vessel alive, but finds he isn’t alone in the small lifeboat; he’s joined on board by a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan – and Richard Parker.

Pi (Suraj Sharma) adrift at sea with tiger Richard Parker in Life of Pi

Pi (Suraj Sharma) adrift at sea with tiger Richard Parker in Life of Pi

The storm is a stark reminder for the stricken Pi of nature at its most untamed and recalls an earlier scene when a younger Pi tries to feed Richard Parker and is chided by his father, who shows him that “a tiger is not your friend” by making him watch it kill a goat. Stuck in the lifeboat, he is given a further unpleasant reminder when he witnesses the law of the wild inevitably taking effect. After watching this, the knock-about opening credits which playfully show the zoo animals going about their daily business take on a rather different light.

The adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his incredible story in Life of Pi

The adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his incredible story in Life of Pi

The teenager names the boat ‘Pi’s Ark’, one of many religious and spiritual references in the film. Pi is shown as a young boy embracing Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, much to the annoyance of his scientifically-minded father, and the extraordinary quest on which he embarks with Richard Parker aboard the boat is as much about spiritual self-discovery as it is about survival.

One of many extraordinary encounters Pi has while lost at sea in Life of Pi

One of many extraordinary encounters Pi has while lost at sea in Life of Pi

It’s when the boat is adrift at sea that the digital light show really takes over. In spite of falling back on the requisite ‘poke things at the screen’ trick to justify the use of 3D, Lee and his digital effects team conjure up myriad striking images. These range from the beautiful (the boat sat on perfectly still, glassy water) to the wonderfully bizarre (the moment hundreds of flying fish thunder by the boat is one of the film’s most memorable scenes).

The encounters Pi has are both frightening and fantastical – a belly flop from the biggest whale you’ve ever seen and the weirdest island (shaped like a woman) this side of Lost. They also speak to a key theme of Life of Pi, the power of faith. The adult Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) relates his story to a writer (Rafe Spall) devoid of ideas for a new book and bestows it on him to do with it as he pleases (“the story’s yours now”).

Setting aside all the remarkable computer work, Lee’s film works best as a simple buddy story between a teenager and a tiger. Although no masterpiece, Life of Pi is far from being a shipwreck and for an ‘unfilmable’ tale that’s an achievement in itself.

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Bringing ‘Unfilmable’ Books To The Big Screen

For as long as the movie industry has existed as a popular art form, books in all their forms have been the subject of cinematic adaptation.

Whether it’s an old or modern classic or a schlocky best-seller, literature has been the source of some of the most loved films in history.

Ang Lee's Life of Pi

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi

In spite of cinema’s basic, inherent function to take words from the page and visualise them there are certain books, some have argued, that are simply impossible to film and as such will never be seen on the silver screen.

Never say never, though, especially in the movie industry, as time and again the critics are confounded and what was once written-off as ‘unfilmable’ ends up going before the cameras – all be it to varying levels of success.

This has never been more true than today, with several adaptations of books that have previously been deemed too complex or challenging to work as films reaching our cinemas. Just recently, we’ve seen an admirable take on Jack Kerouac’s defining beat generation work On The Road by Walter Salles, Ang Lee’s version of Yann Martel’s beloved novel Life of Pi and a bold adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling epic Cloud Atlas by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, while this month also sees the cinematic release of Salman Rushdie’s critically lauded book Midnight’s Children.

Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story

Michael Winterbottom’s ingenious adaptation of Tristam Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story

This is hardly a new phenomenon, however. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial tome Lolita arrived in 1962 (the film poster even states “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”). Mike Nicholls faced major challenges bringing Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war classic Catch-22 to the big screen in 1970, while more recently Peter Jackson finally delivered a truncated, but no less epic production of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to huge acclaim.

David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg’s unique Naked Lunch

Some directors have taken a more metatextual approach, including David Cronenberg who brilliantly weaved events from William Burroughs’ life into a unique adaptation of the writer’s drug-addled opus Naked Lunch. Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story inventively (and hilariously) acknowledged the difficulty of realising Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel Tristam Shandy on screen by adopted the film-within-a-film approach, while Charlie Kaufman channeled his head-banging struggle to write a script for The Orchard Thief to ingenious effect in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.

As Cronenberg, Winterbottom and Kaufman/Jonze have proved, the book is merely the beginning of the process, it needn’t have to be the end. For years movies have been ‘printing the legend’ and playing fast and loose with ‘true’ stories, so why shouldn’t the adaptation of novels be any different?

Midnight's Children

The supposedly ‘unfilmable’ Midnight’s Children

As Lee has stated on adapting Life of Pi: “We can never write a book or make a movie as good as how it plays in the audience’s mind.”

Once published, a book no longer belongs to the writer, it becomes the intellectual property of each and everyone who visualises the words they are reading in their own heads. A film is just another visualisation of the material, it just happens to be the one that gets the most attention.

When the source is a graphic novel, problems can occur as the author/illustrator have already set down how it should look. Zack Snyder was on a hiding to nothing when he adapted Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen, thought to be one of the medium’s most unfilmable works.

Mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen

A mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen

Snyder tried to stay as close to Moore’s vision as he could, but compromises inevitably needed to be made, incurring the ire of both the author and some within the fan community.

Directors and screenwriters will invariably tell you it’s not their job to come up with an ultra-faithful translation of the source. An adaptation is exactly that, an interpretation of the material that should be taken on its own merits.

So-called ‘unfilmable’ books should be treated no differently; we can only hope screenwriters and directors continue to have the vision necessary to bring these texts to the big screen. After all, the books aren’t going anywhere.