The wide appeal of the 3D film adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi (Harcourt, 2002), opening on Wednesday, November 21, is never in doubt from its opening moments on. Giraffes glide through a misty, pastel- colored garden; sloths hang from tree limbs; deer dart through foliage; and a hummingbird flutters off and back on screen.
Director Ang Lee puts on quite a show, taking full advantage of technology to make Martel’s allegorical/metaphorical fable as tactile a viewing experience as possible. Look out for the tiger’s claws. They come right at you.
Life of Pi was published for an adult audience, but appealed to teen readers as well. Both book and film open with the grown-up protagonist, Pi (Irrfan Khan), now living in Montreal, recounting his life’s story to a French-Canadian writer (presumably a stand-in for Martel). The film frequently flashes back to Pi’s idyllic childhood in the former French Indian colony Pondicherry, where he was born and raised in the zoo garden where his father worked as a zookeeper.
Pi’s first name is actually Piscine Molitor, named after his uncle’s favorite swimming pool, a fabled art-deco structure in Paris. But because the English pronunciation of “Piscine” sounds more like the bodily function, the preadolescent boy (played by Ayush Tandon) shortened his name, putting an end to his classmates’ teasing .
As in the book, the older Pi sets out to prove the existence of God—a tall order. By the age of 12, the inquisitive Pi was already a follower of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.
The bulk of the book and film’s action takes place at sea after a shipwreck, when Pi, now a skinny vegetarian teenager (played by Suraj Sharma), squares off with a hulking and hungry Bengal tiger, the only other occupant of a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. To avoid becoming the 550-pound animal’s next meal, Pi has to convince the Tiger, named Richard Parker, that’s he’s the only super alpha male on the boat.
Whether Pi successfully converts anyone I’ll leave to others to decide. The book certainly grips the reader through a humorous, densely detailed, first-person conversation, in which Martel’s diverting digressions enrich the novel’s narrative—the reader learns how to tell the difference between a two-toed sloth and its three-toed counterpart, for example, or the various ways adorable zoo animals can kill humans.
The film, on the other hand, will make you firmly believe in the power of movies. Almost all of the hundreds of animals parading on screen are computer-generated, and it’s difficult to tell the flesh and blood from the pixelated. (Fans of Animal Planet, brace yourself for meerkats, thousands of them.) In fact, the at-sea scenes were shot indoors on a soundstage in Taiwan.
Although the film does more than skim the surface of the book’s themes by necessity, it distills them into an easy-to-digest narration. It’s quite remarkable how much of the prose-heavy text has been translated onto the screen. But for the meat and potatoes—or maybe I should say gobi aloo—of Martel’s themes, the book offers a fuller menu, though the movie immerses the viewer with its own high-tech visual palette.
In other words: from the book, you’ll remember Mantel’s elegant storytelling and from the film, the flying fish that practically land in your lap.
Directed By Ang Lee
Rated PG (animals attack/marking of territory)
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