Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi, a story about the importance of faith and the triumph of the human spirit, is a real treat. On the face of it Life of Pi appears to be a magical-realist tale of survival but it is really an exploration of the significance and power of faith; how religious belief can give people strength and hope and help them make sense of the world. Ang Lee, with the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, brings this warm, fantastical yet tragic tale to life in a way I didn’t think possible.
Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine “Pi” Patel (played superbly by Suraj Sharma), the son of a zookeeper whose family are forced to move from India with all their zoo animals to start a new life in Canada. Along the way the boat carrying Pi and his family, as well as all the animals, is shipwrecked and Pi manages to escape in a lifeboat with only a hyena, orangutan, zebra and an adult male Bengal tiger for company. It sounds like the stuff of fantasy, yet Martel’s novel always manages to keep the story grounded and never wanders too far off into fantasy or farce.
One of the joys of the book are the intense descriptions of the harsh realities of survival at sea; the regenerative effect of a little rain water and the sheer joy of finding morsels of food, chronicling Pi’s journey from squeamish vegetarian to carnivorous hunter-gatherer. And of course the terror and frustration that comes from having to endure this hell with a hungry tiger for company. Though much of the gritty exploration of survival is sacrificed to make way for a more spectacular visual feast in the movie, generally David Magee’s screenplay stays incredibly faithful to the source material and is all the better for it.
Fans of the book and those, like myself, who were a little sceptical about how Lee could adapt a story which is essentially about a boy stranded on a boat with only a tiger for company into an engaging film, will be delighted with what Lee has produced here. The sense of fun and adventure from the novel remains firmly intact and is heightened by the spectacular visual effects. Miranda’s cinematography makes this a stunning film to look at, with many of the sea-bound sequences alarmingly vibrant and colourful.
This is particularly prevalent during the night-time scenes where at various points the fish, water and trees glow, reflecting beautifully off the surface of the water and casting wonderful, dancing light across the bizarre world which Pi has found himself in. This look adds to the sense of magical-realism evident in Martel and Pi’s story, which has its own dark significance come the end of the film. The CGI is also the closest you can get to seamless and at times it was difficult to distinguish between the CGI tiger and the real thing.
However, don’t think that the focus on spectacle and visual effects takes away from the heart and emotion of the story. Martel created a great character in Pi Patel and he is played wonderfully by Sharma as the viewer shares in the pain, fear and moments of elation throughout Pi’s voyage thanks to the power of his performance.
Praise should also go to Irrfan Khan who plays the adult Pi. He subtly etches across his features the anguish Pi still feels deep within his soul after his harrowing experience. And yet this is still an incredibly uplifting tale and it is difficult not to warm to Khan as he recounts his tale to a young novelist (Rafe Spall).
Though the novel had more emotional resonance than the movie, Lee still allows the viewer to forge an emotional connection with Pi throughout the course of the film, although this does mean that some of the more peripheral, but highly significant, characters get less of a look in. Although in truth the peripheral characters are not firmly established in the novel either and it comes as something of a relief that this is not a Peter Jackson-esque three-hour epic. The decision to sacrifice the firm establishment of the other characters during a lengthy prologue in order to tell a good story was a wise one.
Overall this is a highly enjoyable and faithful adaptation of a highly enjoyable book. Any changes or omissions in the movie are not detrimental to the work as a whole and both Lee’s movie and Martel’s book come highly recommended.