Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi was 97th on the last ranking I did of my top 100 novels, a brilliant book that employs multiple literary techniques to tell a story that may or not be a powerful fable, or a commentary on the enduring nature of faith, or a testament to our capacity to handle tragedy and face unimaginable adversity. Or maybe none of the above. It also seemed like the story itself was written to be adapted into a movie, yet its details would make it almost impossible to film.
Computer graphics software has advanced so quickly in the ten years since the book was released that Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) managed not just to film the book, but to do so without making any major modifications to or sacrifices from the original text. The film is wonderful because the book is wonderful; the film is gorgeous because of Lee, and because of technology, but it’s a great film because of the strength of the underlying story and the performance of Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenaged Pi.
The story of Pi, born Piscine Molitor Patel, begins in Pondicherry, India, where his father runs the local zoo, as a business rather than for any affection for the animals. Pi’s given name causes him obvious problems at school, after which he adopts the nickname “Pi” while also developing an affinity for the number itself. The same exploratory spirit leads Pi, raised in the Hindu tradition by his mother, to also follow Christianity and Islam, something given longer treatment in the book, with more humor involved as well; in the film, it’s primarily a source of strife between Pi and his secular father. Pi and his father also clash over the zoo’s recent acquisition, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, which Pi views as a fellow creature with a soul but Pi’s father sees as a soulless carnivore that would eat Pi as soon as look at him.
When economic and political circumstances in India change, Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo’s animals to North American zoos and move the family to Canada, booking passage for all of them on a Japanese freighter across the Pacific. In a massive thunderstorm, the freighter sinks, leaving Pi alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, beginning a 227-day odyssey of survival on the ocean where Richard Parker, having dispatched the other three non-human passengers on their modest vessel, and Pi eventually come to a detente, albeit one where Pi does all the work in exchange for what may be a tacit agreement that Richard Parker will not eat him. They eventually encounter a mysterious floating island before eventually hitting the shore of Mexico, after which Pi tells his story to the Japanese insurance company investigators who want to know why the ship sank.
The film’s biggest change from the book is a narrative device that has the adult Pi telling his life story to an unnamed writer who was sent to Pi by Pi’s uncle, who said that the writer would hear a story that would make him believe in God. Pi is lightly dismissive of the promise, but tells his story just the same, with quite limited narration overall, as Lee lets the bulk of the story on the lifeboat unfold on its own.
That decision means that Sharma must carry a large portion of the film by himself, with no interaction with another human (and, to be fair, not even with another creature, as nearly all of the tiger’s scenes involve a CG version, not a real feline). His performance is remarkable as he must convince us he’s resourceful, terrified, grieving, and devious, without the benefit of real dialogue, although Pi does attempt to engage Richard Parker in conversation on a few occasions. The only real help Sharma receives is from the stunning visuals in the film, mostly wide shots of the open ocean, as well as two significant storms and the aforementioned island that stands as one of the most incredible aspects of Pi’s story. I saw Life of Pi in 3-D, which usually seems to me as more gimmicky than useful, but Lee made excellent use of it to convey Pi’s isolation on the open water or the sheer size of the sinking freighter, only engaging in a little special effects-turbation as he does when a whale flips over Pi’s boat (which was actually pretty cool, just not entirely necessary).
The film ends with a twist as the adult Pi concludes his story, one taken directly from the book as well that casts some doubt on what Pi’s tale actually means, and what Martel may have been trying to tell us, if anything at all. I thought the novel was a touch more ambiguous, but the film’s conclusion has the same effect of opening up a panoply of questions not just about what’s in the film, but about the nature of faith, of human psychology, of evil, and the nature of truth. Pi is a classic, if flawed, hero, whose emotional maturation over the 227 days sits in inverse proportion to his physical deterioration due to exposure and malnutrition. He speaks to the Writer, and the audience, with the wisdom of a teacher, but a teacher who is wise from experience, not just because he has a foreign accent. Lee’s use of this device to replace the first-person narration of the book might be the best decision he made on the film, one of many good choices from casting to effects to angles that bring us into the lifeboat between man and tiger that make his work here as good as any director’s in 2012 except Kathryn Bigelow’s for Zero Dark Thirty.
If you haven’t read Life of Pi, I’d recommend doing that before or after seeing the film, as it’s a quick and totally engrossing read that gives a little more depth to portion of the story that comes before the lifeboat, and also spends more time following Pi’s survival planning in his first few weeks alone. The film may have dragged for me in the middle just because I knew almost everything that was to come, but I still enjoyed the craftsmanship in it, including Sharma’s performance.
This is the sixth Best Picture nominee I’ve seen, and I’d place it clearly behind Zero Dark Thirty but comfortably above Silver Linings Playbook (fifth) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (last). I’d also favor Lee over the directors of those latter two films for Best Director, but haven’t seen Lincoln (yet) or Amour (might skip that one entirely). Life of Pi will probably crush a few of the technical awards, but the absence of Sharma from the Best Actor category is disappointing, given how strong his work was and how much the film depended on him to perform at that level. I’ve only seen one of the five films represented in the Best Actor category, though, so I can’t say whether he was jobbed or just squeezed out in a strong year.