Back in 2004 I had just finished Yann Martel’s brilliant novel, Life of Pi. It had been a breathtaking read; a fantastical narrative and a deeply spiritual and philosophical journey that had left me with an infinite number of questions and mixed feelings, as well as a sense of catharsis that can only come from such an experience of intense introspection. As I put the book away, I remember distinctly thinking to myself, this is one book that’ll never be made in to a movie…
Years later and I’m excitedly waiting to see Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi, evidently proven wrong, but for once….not caring at all. I am one of those people who do not take kindly to my favourite novels being adapted in to movies, but something was different here. Yes I admit, sheer curiosity played a large part, but I had also been enraptured by the beauty of the marketing material – from the teaser screenshots, to the trailer and the 3D scene played before The Amazing Spider-Man, I was completely blown away and ready to believe that Ang Lee had achieved the impossible.
To a large extent, he has. The film adaptation of Life of Pi is a wonder to behold, it’s an endearing, enchanting and beautiful creation that takes Martel’s words and develops them in to a stunning and majestic visual feast. A true evolution of the source material for the big screen. However, while it’s easy to be captivated by the visuals, it is necessary to understand that they belie a significant defect with the film. The deep introspection and emotional processes that Martel so beautifully renders in his work, cannot be successfully replicated on screen. To overcome this, Lee is forced to drop a considerable amount of substance from the narrative, either attempting to reference it in the early scenes, prior to the act on the lifeboat, or else try to create visual metaphors that some viewers may recognise but to most, just become another part of the impressive phantasmagorical tapestry that Lee weaves. The near-hallucinatory scene in which Pi gazes deep in to the water, past the beasts of the deep to the imagined sunken cargo ship is one such attempt to visually convey Pi’s philosophical notion that men and beasts are all connected. However, without the context of the book in the viewers mind, many of these references may be overlooked.
This is not to make excuses for the film though, Lee has obviously had to make substantial sacrifices in content in order to walk a fine line between entertainment and a tiresome lecture on faith that could only work through excessive voiceover or monologuing. This has given rise to much criticism about the film being soulless and to a degree, these claims can be substantiated. However, as a fan of the novel I find that the film was vastly enjoyable as a companion to the literature. It still stands that the book in all its wondrous complexity and depth cannot be replicated on screen, but now we have a visual masterpiece that compliments Martel’s extraordinary world and has a few brief things to say about faith. It’s down to the conscience of the individual filmgoer as to whether this is artistic, or vacuous and thus far, criticism falls heavily in both camps.
For my part, I cannot imagine there are many who will not find the tale hugely enjoyable. It’s a story unlikely to be told in many other works outside of Disney. Furthermore, the film has to be congratulated in its effective demonstration of the power of 3D technology, that for once made the film world feel as organic as our own.
So while we may not have a particularly deep film, as lamented by many fans of the original material, we have a visual rendition of the book that attempts to grasp the spirit of Martel’s work as far as cinematic conventions and limitations allow. A respectful and vibrant homage to Life of Pi that surprises, delights and entertains and pushes the boundaries of visual storytelling.