Life of Pi

November 25, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Posted in 2012 | 3 Comments
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When a book is considered “unfilmable,” it seems to be for one or both of two reasons:  First, the images it describes cannot be captured on film.  This is something that is becoming less and less of the case as technology develops.  Second, what made the book great was its language and that does not translate to the screen.  “Life of Pi” has tackled both of these problems superbly.  It may be the best example to date of “serious” use of CGI (I don’t like the word “serious” but I cannot think of a better one to describe the use of CGI as a means to tell great stories that could not have been told in the past).  The use of CGI here lends itself to both problems of the “unfilmable” book.  In previous generations, you could not have filmed a movie that put a young man in such danger with a wild animal.  Yet, this CGI tiger was so beautifully rendered that there were only a few times when I could see the CGI-ishness of him (if I can make that word up). Director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) has shown a deft touch with both stunning visuals and complex emotions.  Here, he has chosen to use CGI to capture much of the lyrical language of the book.  From the opening credits, you know you are in for a visually lush film and Lee never let’s you down.  The ocean itself is a living character, whose ever changing moods are portrayed in myriad different images of the interplay of water and sky.  The images of the sea, which some may tire of, were my favorite parts of the film.  The film was most poetic in those moments, as was the book.  Lee also has fun with his imagery   On two occasions that I caught, he slipped 3.14 (ie Pi) into the film: on the analog clock in the boat the date was 3 and the hands were on the 1 and 4, and the life raft was no. 1, with a capacity of 30 people and a length of 400-and-something-or-other.  Strangely, the film is entirely bloodless.  For all the rending of zebra and orangutan and hyena, there is not so much as a drop of blood in the boat, on the tiger or anywhere.  There is no gore at all and I find that to be a fascinating decision.  Perhaps, Lee wanted the film to be child friendly, though I hardly think it is, even blood-free.  Or, perhaps, he didn’t want violence (all of which occurs off screen) and gore to cheapen the deeper spiritual goals of his film.  Whatever his reasons, I confess I found the obvious avoidance to be an unwanted distraction.  Much of what I have had to say about this film is about Lee.  That’s because I am not quite sure how to tackle the 19 year old young man, Suraj Sharma, around whom the entire movie revolves.  Before this film, he had never acted at all.  In fact, he had no interest in being an actor and attended an audition just to support his brother.  Given how much time he spends on camera, it is a minor miracle the film wasn’t a disaster.  Yet, Sharma pulls it off.   He isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis and it shows (particularly when comparing his ability to express grief with Irrfan Khan, who plays Pi as an adult) but he mostly avoids the melodramatic pitfalls that would be easy in a movie like this.  In fact, he seems to play it just right in his most important scene: (without spoiling anything) there is a final scene where Pi tells a story to two men.   The camera focuses steadily on Sharma’s face and we have to envision the story through his expressions.  It’s a great scene and says something that Lee was willing to trust this young man with such an important moment.  That scene could have easily been done in flashback but it was so much more powerful this way.  It is rare that I can say this, but this film gave me insights that I missed when I read the book.  In a story so rich in metaphor, the religious value of it had made less of an impression on me when I read it.  I focused more on the story of trauma and survival; the film reminded me that it is ultimately a story of faith and belief in the miraculous.  While I am not the least bit a faith-based person, I can appreciate a story that does it well and this story does.


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  1. A beautiful film unlike any other, I just wish that the story was better and didn’t end the exact way it did. Nice review.

  2. I appreciate the comment. Personally, I was very drawn to the story. I had been skeptical to read the book because I wondered how hundreds of pages of a boy and a tiger at sea could be interesting, but I found the whole thing to be griping and so beautifully written. Much of that story doesn’t translate well to the screen. Instead, you get something more sweeping and metaphorical and less of Pi’s day-to-day ingenuity, tension and emotional roller coaster that was a big part of the book. When you say you wish it didn’t end the way it did, I assume you mean the “twist” of his interview with the Japanese men. I have a friend who hates that ending but I love it. It made me want to start the book over and I think it really causes the reader/viewer to suddenly reconsider the story. It is also a fundamental part of the core message of what faith is: do you believe the more logical or the more beautiful thing. It is faith as aesthetics. While I find that to be an ultimately unconvincing notion, it’s fascinating to me and I loved Yann Martel’s way of imparting that to us.

  3. FYI – I thought folks might be interested in the likely origin of “Richard Parker,” the tiger’s name in “The Life of Pi.” I think it is almost certainly based on a famous piece of British case law from 1884. The year before, a British boat had sunk off of South Africa. Four crewmen were left adrift on a life raft. The 17 year old cabin boy’s name was Richard Parker. When they got desperate. Lots were drawn and Parker was killed and eaten. A zebra, orangutan, hyena and tiger = 4 lives adrift at sea, only this time Richard Parker is the one who eats the rest. That plus the fact that you have a teenage boy who has some sort of connection to the tiger; it all seems to be too similar to be coincidence. Here is the Wikipedia article about the legal case that resulted from the incident:

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