Life of Pi

There have been many books that have been called unfilmable.  Film is primarily a visual medium and works best for stories that are more plot driven and less philosophical.  It took ten years and several directors to get Life of Pi to the screen.  Finally Ang Lee came up with a vision for the project that the producers thought would work.  He was mostly successful but this film is far from a triumph. 

I have to admit that I’ve never read Yann Martel’s novel.  I googled it, however, and learned that its theme is considered to be an exploration of the lengths and depths to which people will go to survive.  Ang Lee’s film, however, is more a meditation on the process of storytelling and how it relates to spirituality.  And I’ll tell you right now, I can’t even explain that without spoiling the movie.   Suffice to say that things happen to us and when we tell other people about them, we can’t help but fall short of the truth, even when we’re trying.

The movie starts with a frame story which consists of a writer, played by Rafe Spall, looking up Pi Patel in Montreal, because he had run into Pi’s uncle in Pondicherry, India and the old man had said that Pi had a story that will make the writer believe in God.  They spend an afternoon as the adult Pi, played by Irrfam Khan, relates first a quick overview of his childhood in Pondicherry, growing up in a zoo that his father ran, and then the disastrous story of the family’s immigration to Canada on a cargo ship.  They were taking the animals with them to sell to other zoos.  A storm sinks the ship and Pi, now played by Suraj Sharma, escapes on a lifeboat.  He is the only human to get away.  Also on the boat is a Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker.  Pi is a smart and resourceful kid who keeps both himself and the tiger alive.  The process of him doing this is the best part of the movie.

When I called Life of Pi a meditation, I meant just that.  This is a movie with a stately pace.  In the frame story and in the narration they discuss the philosophical implications of Pi’s tale of survival at length.  This was Lee’s way to bring the intellectual depth of the book to the screen.  It’s probably the simplest way to do it but hardly the most subtle or effective.

The performances are good.  Suraj Sharma turns in a remarkable performance as Pi, interacting with both a real and a CGI tiger realistically.  Irrfam Khan plays the older Pi with a wariness combined with devotion.  He is a fun actor to watch.

For the most part this is a pretty film.  The scenes on the boat with the blue sky against the ocean are beautiful.  In other scenes, however, the film is dully lit and flatly framed.  The film stock is grainy too, giving the film a cheap look.  This had to be a choice I’m not sure why it was done that way.

There are probably books out there that are unfilmable, but not as many as people might assume.  Ang Lee did a good but not perfect job with this one.

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