Life has always been a struggle for Piscine Molitor Patel, a story of challenges before eventual triumph. Yann Martel’s second novel, it struggled even to find a publisher, receiving multiple rejections before becoming a phenomenon, winning literary prizes including the Man Booker, translated the world over and adapted for stage. Then came the film adaptation, passed from M Night Shyamalan to Alfonso Cuarón to Jean-Pierre Jeunet before finally coming to Ang Lee. While those other directors are recognised for their fantastical output, The Sixth Sense, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The City of Lost Children, Lee is best known for his dramatic output, The Wedding Banquet, Ride With The Devil, The Ice Storm and the award winning Brokeback Mountain, but let us not forget that lurking within his resume are crouching tigers, hidden dragons and Doctor Bruce Banner.
It is to tigers he returns with the tale of the shipwrecked youth Pi Patel, alone on the pacific in a thirty foot lifeboat with only the company of a broken legged zebra, an aggressive and uncontrollable hyena, an orangutan named Orange Juice and Richard Parker, a royal Bengal tiger. As the animals eliminate one another, Pi must find a way to coexist with the final survivor if both of them are to make it to land; as much as Richard Parker needs Pi for food and water, he needs the tiger for inspiration and companionship on the waves.
As would be expected of Lee, the film is both visually entrancing and technically approaches perfection; the 3D effects are underplayed except when they actually enhance the film, such as in the shipwreck, astonishing and terrifying in it’s near silent beauty, and vivid storm sequences, both of which bring the viewer to the verge of seasickness, the lifeboat tossed and hurled, waterlogged and spinning in the depth of the ocean, yet there are moments when the screen is as clear as the water of the Parisian swimming pool after which Pi is named.
In his oceanic exile, Pi is debut actor Suraj Sharma, determined and inspired throughout, as an adult it is Irrfan Khan who recounts the story to Rafe Spall’s writer, given better opportunity to shine here than in Prometheus. There is a one scene cameo from Gérard Depardieu as the ships cook, a character of hidden importance to those who have read the source novel.
Richard Parker himself is on the whole convincingly created, only occasionally betraying his digital origins, but the often difficult to render water effects are utterly consuming whether staring across the endless waves or into the crystal depths, inhabited by countless luminous denizens at night or in a momentary recreation of the cover of the Canongate edition of the novel. Only certain moment are jarring, such as a sunset which is as fake as when Leonardo DiCaprio looked across the bow of the Titanic, though fortunately the sinking of Tsimtsum is considerably swifter.
The playful opening title sequence sets the placid pacing of the film, which at just over two hours is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the novel, with only minor deviations and structural changes. Certainly only one sequence of significance is omitted, though that does result in a major change of tone of the final scenes of the film, though in the interests of balance a piece of evidence that supports the events as initially described by Pi, the bones of the meerkats in the lifeboat, is also dropped, leaving the audience with a much more ambiguous choice as to which version they choose to believe.
A less tangible change is how sanitised the story has become, with the deaths of the animals, bloody, violent and explicitly detailed in the book largely concealed from the audience. The animal kingdom is brutal, but Pi has been warned that spiritual life is no different, his warning that he shouldn’t “let the spectacle and pretty lights fool you – religion is darkness,” and indeed the voices of his parents are an opening into a measured meditation on the contradiction and inconsistency of belief. Like the ocean surface reflecting the stars above, or staring into the eyes of animals, gazing long enough will bring you to see only yourself.
The meanings of the book and the film are as open and endless as the ocean; Pi, with three major religions to his name, finds peace and strength both within and without and could not have survived without both, but it is practical knowledge of the world that keeps him afloat and fed, and when he finds his tropical garden of Eden he chooses to leave once he has plucked the flower that reveals the truth of the island; the sinking of Tsimtsum is unexplained, because life does not give answers to dreadful things that make no sense; all of us may have animals within us, but animals are individuals who also have a right to live. Perhaps the only thing that can be stated clearly and unambiguously is that like Pi, writer Yann Martel is himself vegetarian.
Life of Pi is released in 2D and 3D on 20th December