I think it might be time to put to bed the idea of an ‘unfilmable novel’. Particularly in recent cinema history, as Hollywood has increasingly relied on existing material for its output, so-called unfilmable books have yielded movies of varying quality. It’s true that some (such as 2012’s two-part adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, by all accounts a catastrophic failure) only bolster arguments favouring the concept, but let us not forget that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was long considered unfilmable before Francis Ford Coppola gave us Apocalypse Now, not to mention the certainly difficult but successful job Peter Jackson did with JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Which brings us to Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s introspective 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel. A challenging story to bring to the screen to be sure, but under the expert hand of Ang Lee the film is yet one more example of how difficult material can be adapted given the right amount of time and care.
Life of Pi is at its core a tale of survival against insurmountable odds, following the titular teenager’s (Suraj Sharma) months spent adrift on a lifeboat after the sinking of a cargo ship transporting his family from India to Canada. A dwindling menagerie of animals from the family zoo are also along for the ride, including the fearsome Bengal tiger Richard Parker, representing those who managed to escape the ship and cling to Pi’s tiny craft.
Perhaps the difficulty of adapting the novel lay in keeping audience interest during long sequences involving little more than a boy and a tiger, and it’s likely the film would have dragged were it not for the astonishing visual spectacle Lee brings to the screen. He takes full advantage of all technical wizardry available, balancing the ocean’s serene beauty and unapologetic violence in just the right measure. Even the 3-D, something I personally am usually resistant to, never intrudes or calls attention to itself, but rather complements the oppressively flat horizon so much of the film plays out in front of. Life of Pi will undoubtedly be in the best visual effects conversation come awards season, with Richard Parker in particular standing out as one of the most impressive digital characters yet created.
Exploring Life of Pi a little deeper, Lee develops strong thematic currents relating to storytelling and faith, and how the two are entwined. As a story about storytelling, the film works very well from the beginning, as the older Pi (played wonderfully by Irrfan Khan) relates his tale to a visiting writer (Rafe Spall). Yet it is also a story about faith, and here the waters get a little murkier. What Lee is trying to say about faith and religion is open to interpretation (and that’s likely the point), but the film’s one major shortcoming is a lack of satisfying answers regarding what is the most clearly defined aspect of Pi himself.
The narrative seems to promote the importance of faith as a general concept, not tied to any specific religion, but more akin to a sharing of humanistic beliefs. It’s not the specifics of faith’s origins or even ultimate goals that matter, but rather how the beliefs are shared, adapted and passed on. Not the most conclusive analysis I know, but the links between faith and storytelling are there, and perhaps repeat viewings will offer up more answers.
Despite the elusive nature of some of Life of Pi’s subtext, it really is a film that deserves praise and attention. Never one to pigeonhole himself, Lee has crafted a thoughtful and moving fantasy that is beautiful to behold yet also offers much intellectual nourishment.