Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Life of Pi
Ang Lee, director
David Magee, script based on the novel by Yann Martel
Starring: Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel), Irrfan Khan (Older Pi), Ayush Tandon (Young Pi), Rafe Spall (The Writer), Tabu (Pi’s mother), Adil Hussain (Pi’s father), Gerard Depardieu (The French cook), Andrea di Stefano (The Priest), Ayan Khan (Pi’s brother)
Since Yann Martel’s allegorical novel Life of Pi was published in 2001, it has won critical acclaim in England (the Man Booker Prize), South Africa (the Boeke Prize) and, indeed, throughout the world (the Asian/Pacific American Prize). Not only has been it been a best seller in multiple languages, it’s the kind of book that wins the undying affection of many readers. A story about a 16-year-old Indian boy staying alive in a raft with a Bengal tiger for 227 days will either enchant you or drive you crazy!
To adapt what seemed like an unadaptable novel to the screen was a mammoth attack. Here’s where the buzz grew. Ang Lee, the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is certainly one of the very filmmakers in the world who could take Martel’s tall tale (with hidden meanings) and turn it into great cinema. Has he done it? Read on.
Literary adaptation; magical realism; coming of age story; tall tale
Pi’s life story is told through a series of flashbacks. In present day Canada, a writer goes to the house of Pi Patel, a middle aged man, who had an extraordinary adventure when he was young that gave him faith in God. The viewer soon finds out that…
Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel has grown up a Buddhist in a happy household in the French colony of Pondicherry, India. Although the colony became amalgamated with India during Pi’s youth, the atmosphere of the “French Riviera of the East” pervaded the place, attracting tourists and possibly inspiring the boy’s father to start and run a zoo near the Botanical Garden. When Pi is introduced to Christianity and Islam in his early teens, he wants to embrace those religions as well as Buddhism because they bring him to closer to God.
Pi’s idyllic life is shattered when his parents decide to immigrate to Canada due to worsening political conditions in India. The Patels depart on a Japanese freighter, taking some of their animals with them to sell in Canada. When a violent storm causes the boat to capsize, Pi is thrown overboard where he finds safety—of a kind—on a lifeboat. He isn’t alone: his companions are former zoo creatures—an injured zebra, an orangutan, a spotted hyena and a lion named by Pi’s father Richard Parker. Within a few days, the hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan and is eaten itself by Richard Parker.
Pi builds a tiny raft, which he ties to the larger lifeboat. He fishes, finding food for himself and Richard Parker. Gradually, he learns how to tame the beast, at least some of the time. During their months at sea, Pi and the tiger are encounter flying fish and luminescent sea creatures. They’re almost swept back into the ocean by a whale and have to survive a frightening storm. Eventually, they find an island inhabited only by meerkats. It seems like a paradise at first until Pi discovers that the algae are carnivorous. They take off again, eventually landing in Mexico.
There, Pi is rescued but he’s soon confronted by Japanese investigators who want to know what happened to the freighter. Pi tells them his amazing tale—and they don’t believe him. When they ask more forcefully again, Pi tells a more human tale of revenge—which I won’t recount!
Coming out of his last flashback, Pi and his young authorial friend ponder the meaning of life, and of stories. Asked by Pi which version of the story the author likes better, the tall tale or the grim human one, the writer picks the startling fantasy.