“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, was one of my favorite novels after my mother and I read it in a mother-daughter book club. While it was released in 2001, it stayed relevant enough to be chosen for our group to read in 2010. As such a huge fan of the book, I did not expect to be as enthused about the film adaptation, directed by Ang Lee (2012), but could not have been more wrong. “Life of Pi,” the film, is now among my favorites through both mediums, and I actually prefer the movie to the book unlike other popular adaptation like “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter.” There are several reasons why Lee’s work is profoundly superior, including his use of dualism, spirituality, and seamless transitions between the past and present.
Martel’s story follows the protagonist Pi, played by Suraj Sharma, as he attempts to survive and return to civilization after losing everyone and everything in a shipwreck. The particularly exceptional aspect of Pi’s story is that the only other surviving ship passenger, who floats across the world in a lifeboat with him for 227 days, is Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Pi must protect himself from Richard Parker while also befriending him, as they only have one another. Pi and Richard Parker are parallels of one another, and Lee displays this countless times in his direction. The two develop a pattern of non-threatening eye contact throughout the story, despite Richard Parker’s nature and instinctual desire to feed himself and remain a predator. Pi’s family were zookeepers, which explained the exotic animals traveling aboard the ship with them, and his father was insistent that predators would always be ruthless and unlearning. Pi believed, through his spirituality, that Richard Parker had a soul and could learn and understand. This spiritual connection and belief between the two tied them together. Without giving away too much, there is even a chance that Richard Parker and Pi are the same. You’ll have to watch (or read) to see what I mean!
The visuals in Lee’s film are striking — sunsets in the middle of the ocean, bioluminescent algae lighting up the darkest nights, and the amazingly advanced CGI Richard Parker. As Pi and Richard float from the Mariana Trench, where the wreck occurs, to the coast of Mexico, they are met with a Humpback whale, sharks, flying fish, and even a floating island. Pi and Richard are presented as counterparts, as enemies, and as friends. They learn to coexist and eventually to rely on one another. The many months at sea are a test of physique, mental adaptation and faith, and Suraj Sharma makes Pi’s spiritual journey as convincing as his nautical one. The white lifeboat is surely symbolic of something, but mostly serves as the blank canvas on which the events of the story take place, as well as providing an aesthetically pleasing base for beautiful aerial shots as the creatures of the sea circle the boat time and time again. It is no surprise Lee earned the Academy Award for Best Director for the film.
While countless films utilize flashbacks to tell a story within a story, it can often detract from the immersiveness that movies provide to viewers. Critics wrote that the book was supposedly “unfilmable” based on the complex nature of the story and the very challenging visual and CGI effects, given the zoo animals and the shipwreck. The film executes these aspects profoundly well. Pi recalls his upbringing before the wreck to a Canadian Reporter as the film begins, and the audience understands his journey better for it. The reporter wishes to speak with Pi, as he was told that his survival story would “make him believe in God,” and Pi’s relationship with religion throughout his life will make any reader or viewer question their faith similarly. He explains the root of his name and his nickname, he experiences love and loss, and he reconciles with his family’s move from India to Canada to sell the zoo animals they are being forced to part with.
Overall, Lee directed a beautiful film worthy of the recognition it received and more. Embracing the duality between Pi and Richard Parker, the story was displayed beautifully in its many settings from India, to the middle of the Pacific, and even to the home in which Pi tells his story to the reporter. There is no better film to persuade viewers to believe the unbelievable, and the work of Ang Lee and his team in adapting an already exceptional novel into a life changing film is among the best in the industry today.