I’ve given myself a few months to digest this film, since I feel as though my initial response to it may have been jilted thanks to my unapologetic adoration of the novel. Jilted in a bad way, since I felt this paled in comparison and so I was almost angry at the film for being critically successful. Taking these few months to let it all marinade, I have to admit that not a whole lot has changed from my initial feelings.
While reading ‘Life of Pi’, on a plane coming home from Europe, I was spellbound. Page after page kept me intrigued and absorbed and engaged and completely in awe of everything being expressed and expounded on. The journey and magical quality of it all was one thing, but the spiritual undertones and the way it beautifully developed the themes of faith and God were so articulate yet never condescending or overbearing that it all felt so effortless. Up until that point, I had no real interest in the film adaptation that was fast approaching, but after putting the book down I was overcome with this intense desire to see Lee’s film. When I saw that it was a PG rated film, obviously directed at families, I was a bit hesitant. It’s not that the novel was extremely graphic, and yet in parts it really was and I just couldn’t understand how you could try and make this a family film.
Still, I had to see it.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the basic premise is this. A young boy named Pi (pronounced Pee) grows up in India on a zoo with his family. At a young age he becomes fascinated with the idea of God and faith and religion and begins to study and practice multiple religions in an attempt to bring himself closer to God. When his family decides to sell the zoo and move to Canada, Pi finds himself on a boat with a crew that dislikes him and a slew of animals in cages awaiting their destiny overseas. During a terrible and unexpected storm everything goes awry, Pi’s family is killed and he is left destitute on a life boat with a hyena, zebra, orangutan and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. For 227 days, Pi has to learn to survive alongside this beast.
It is an intriguing tale and one that it mostly approached from an angle of respect, and I must admit that the way Lee visually crafts the film is marvelous, but outside of those visuals I found the film to be almost shallow in its presentation of the more intimate and important themes of the story. The core of the story is lost in a film that becomes redundant and superficial. I think a big problem with the ‘translation’ of the film is that the key segments on the book are all internalized. You read the thought patterns of young Pi and you begin to become entranced in his world. In film it isn’t always easy to convey internalized transformations and so the outward redundancies (yelling at the tiger, starving, fishing, yelling at the tiger) carry less weight. While there is tragedy at the center of the film, it became almost too focused on the visuals and so it lost the heaviness needed to carry the emotional side of the story. It became pretty, but empty. I also found the changes to the story to be unnecessary. Pi’s love interest was a ridiculous inclusion, especially since there is no development of that story and so their separation carries no weight. I also found the whale scene to be kind of pointless, yet pretty, and while I understand the idea of creating tension thanks to the aftermath of the scene it just didn’t do what it set out to do.
|Why are you here?|
The way the film is spliced is also somewhat irritating, although I’m sure it was developed to try and add some interruption to the redundancy of Pi’s struggle. The constant shifting from present to past and the use of Irrfan Khan (elder Pi) as a narrator for many of Pi’s actions felt forced and took me out of the story, to be honest. It also took some of the key moments in the book (like the adventure on Meerkat Island) and condensed them to the point where they were almost pointless. I understand the need of narration to explain certain things that visuals won’t readily explain, but these segments were so short that they almost trivialized their inclusion.
I’ll admit, the conclusion is still heartbreaking, and when the big question is asked, “Which story do you prefer?”, I can’t help but feel the lump in my throat. I also can’t help but reply, “I prefer the story Yann Martel told me!”.
Still, ‘Life of Pi’ is a beautiful film. The visual effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a film, and for that it richly deserved its Oscar. I take issue with the cinematography Oscar, since the skies and sea were all created by the visual effects department, but whatever. This was purely a director’s film in the end, and so for that I guess Lee’s Oscar shouldn’t be all that shocking to me, although I really don’t think he deserved it. He may have created a visually arresting film, but the core of this film was not a visual one but an emotional and spiritual one and he failed to tie those ends together (for me).
Despite the heaviness of the actual prose, there is something ‘slight’ about this interpretation.