The structure of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, Life of Pi, is premised on the idea that this ‘fictional’ story of young Pi Patel – struggling for life in the middle of the Pacific with a 450-pound Royal Bengal Tiger for company – is actually a recount of true events.
The book begins with an author’s note, explaining the events of his own life that led him to hear of this extraordinary tale: from his sabbatical in India to visit to the home of the adult Pi Patel in Canada.
“We met many times. He showed me the diary he kept during the events. He showed me the yellowed newspaper clippings that made him briefly, obscurely famous.”
Chapter one of the story shifts to a first-person narrative, from Pi’s own perspective, because “it seemed natural that Mr Patel’s story should be told mostly in the first person – in his voice and through his eyes.” But there is still the occasional, italicized diversion back into the present – to remind the reader that this story is in fact being recounted to the author.
Soon, the reader realises that the reason why the author is writing this story is just as important as the story itself. And this blurred line between fiction and reality – and the reader’s uncertainty if any of it is even true – is central to the story.
There will be times – either as a reader or as a moviegoer – that the events are so extraordinary that you will question the plausibility of Pi’s story. At these times, just remember what Pi admits to himself: that after so many days at sea, he could no longer tell the difference between his daydreams and reality.
What really happened to Pi in the middle of the Pacific Ocean doesn’t matter – what matters is his resolve to live, and his faith.
I was impressed to see that Ang Lee transitioned all of these complexities into the 2012 film. All of the intricacies are there: the author; the storyteller; the recounted journey; the hallucinations and the daydreams; and the uncertainty of the audience.
Lee allows Pi to trace back through his childhood in Pondicherry, through his explorations of love and religion; although there are some aspects of his story that are missing. One omission that I particularly lamented was Pi’s explanations of animal behaviour and the “art and science of zookeeping”. The book is brimming with detail, about how the animals perceive their own lives within their enclosures, and how animals can get used to the presence of humans.
In the movie we see glimmers of Pi’s knowledge of animals through his ability to gradually manipulate and train the tiger. We are shown that he had one close encounter at the zoo, which turned into a life lesson.
In contrast, the Pi of the book was given the opportunity to describe everything from the social behaviour of Indian Rhinos (who enjoy the company of goats), to the behaviour of human visitors who persistently break the rules by feeding the animals. He displays much more knowledge of the dangers and realities of the zoo and, although his ‘life lesson’ did feature in the original book, it was a result of his father’s insistence and not his own recklessness.
In a similar vein, the grown-up Pi of the film is shown to have a wonderful, comfortable, settled life with a wife and children. As is typical in film adaptations, there are details left out about his later life, including his studies and the University of Toronto and academic study of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth.
Another deviation is the way in which Richard Parker came to join Pi on his lifeboat. In the book, Pi is experiencing such intense pain at the loss of his family that he fought desperately to save any other life possible. He sees Richard Parker struggling to stay afloat and does all that he can to beckon him toward the lifeboat and help in on-board. It is for the reader to learn that Richard Parker is the tiger, and for Pi to realise the consequences of his desperation.
In the film, Pi does see a form thrashing, struggling in the water – and he does help to bring this form to safety – but he realises that the form is Richard Parker all too late.
Nit-picking aside, the back cover of the book was correct when it described Yann Martel’s novel as “one of the most extraordinary works of fiction in recent years.” The story is at times heartbreakingly sad, and at other times completely magical and life affirming.
The Academy was also right on the money when it gave Life of Pi the honour of eleven Oscar nominations – including a nod for Best Picture and Best Director. The film hits all the important highs and lows of the book, and adds to the then a magnificent, luminescent, three-dimensional shimmer.
All credit to Lee, and to Suraj Sharma for holding much of the weight of the acting of the film on his own shoulders. Irrfan Khan, as the grown-up Pi, is funny, sensitive and relatable; and Rafe Spall as “the writer” uses just the right amount of charisma to be likeable, but (rightly) without stealing the limelight.
Book or Big Screen? Book
The film is: 4. A fine adaptation that maintains the original’s exceptional qualities
Coming up soon: A review of Anna Karenina