Despite being a quite unpopular opinion, and one that seems to enhance the fallacious idea that the “book is always better,” I honestly don’t care if a movie adaptation doesn’t include, or even changes, some aspects of the work it’s based on.While I don’t mean that an adaptation has the freedom to change everything about the source material, the fact of the matter is that books and movies are different mediums and, as such, must be treated differently.
Some parts of a book translate perfectly to the silver screen. Others, however, simply don’t work as well and need to be changed, replaced, or reworked for the audio/video arts. Sadly, many people making adaptations don’t realize this fact and, instead of focusing on making a good movie that stays true to the themes, basic concepts, or general story of the source material, turns the film into a “highlight reel” of the book’s memorable moments.
Going into the big-screen adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, it seemed the movie could go either way. Marketed mostly on its fantasy visuals and cinematography, Pi’s quest could very well have lost much of what made the book special and reduced it to a trailer-ready effects extravaganza. However, that could also have simply been a marketing tactic to get more people to see a truly fantastic story brought to life. But, now that the film has finally been unleashed, does Life of Pi sink, or swim?
Life of Pi is the coming-of-age story of one Piscine Patel, an unfortunately named Indian child who’s parents own a zoo. And, in the vein of many coming-of-age tales, the movie captures Pi as he struggles with his personal identity under great social and religious pressure.
These struggles are made harsher by the wildly unique opinions he holds, with both his spiritual views (which, essentially, is a combination of many religions) and his views on animals conflicting with those of his parents and of society. These conflicts make up the film’s first act and attempt to set the stage for the rest of the picture.
All of it feels really shallow, however, as the reasoning for both Pi’s views and his parents’ aren’t really expounded on. They are presented, certainly, but the conflict doesn’t lead to much development. We never see Pi grow or change, causing his character to often feel silly and boneheaded which, while fine when he’s young and cute, really becomes a problem later on. It’s lots of exposition and characterization without the growth a story like this demands.
The Patels eventually decide they’ve had enough of India and move away, hoping to begin a new life in Canada. Tragedy occurs, however, when a massive storm strikes the boat both they and their animals are traveling on, with Pi barely (and against his will) escaping on a lifeboat.
As the storm subsides, our protagonist finds himself in a not-too-joyous situation: on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean sharing space and resources with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In order to survive, Pi is forced to use his creativity and wilderness skills to stay alive, get to land, and keep Richard Parker from getting hungry enough to eat him.
Despite being the most straightforward part of the story, these scenes are easily the best. Utilizing the claustrophobic conditions to its advantage, the film creates both intrigue and tension as Pi attempts everything from building a separate lifeboat to taming Richard Parker in order to keep their relationship lividly tolerable.
And, despite being set on the surface of the ocean, the film consistently keeps interesting things on the screen. The grand, effects-filled scenes touted in the trailers are all wonderful, providing a good timeline of events that creates a greater illusion of time passing and keeps the viewer engaged.
These are peppered by the equally fun scenes of just Pi and Richard Parker living their new life together, creating a sort of “house divided” scenario that provides a lot of great tension and, surprisingly, comedic moments, including what is probably the best “pee joke” put to screen in a very long time, if not the best one ever.
Fulfilling the biggest promise of the film’s promotion, all of these scenes look absolutely astounding. The cinematography and computer animation work together seamlessly to create a fantastic fantasy feel, with Lee using more pronounced visual elements not just because they look gorgeous (though that is definitely a plus), but also to highlight Pi’s emotional state and give us a deeper peek into his feelings. It’s a small trick, but it works really well.
These scenes highlight more than just Pi’s emotions, however. All of act two is peppered with problems that show just how shallow the adaptation really is. The first and most harmful comes in the form of Pi’s “spiritual moments,” those times when the audience is supposed to see God working in Pi.
Though religion is, if anything, ambiguous, these scenes take that to a fault, making Pi take his spiritual voyeurism too far and often causing him to lose supplies and valuable time. For a story that claims it can “make you believe in God,” religion doesn’t seem to have a very positive effect on Pi’s journey and appears less like “God is great” and more like “religion killed the cat.”
The other part comes in the amount of eye-candy and fan service shoehorned into the film. Though the aesthetic and grandiose moments do often work, there are many areas where it doesn’t serve to add anything to the film. This becomes very obvious during a scene that goes as far as to change the film’s aspect ratio to try and recreate the novel’s original cover, literally turning the experience into the previously mentioned highlight reel.
The final problem is that the movie talks a lot about Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker growing and becoming more real, leading to an ending that is supposed to make a point about spirituality and friendship. It never really shows that relationship grow, though, leading to an ending that lacked the emotional resonance it needed.
For all the visual, metaphorical, and spiritual pomp it presents, the film’s message is far to shallow to hold any emotional weight. Though it’s certainly fun at parts, the merits of Life of Pi have been vastly overstated by both critics and the film itself. The movie can’t even make you believe it’s very good, let alone in a God, and it’s certainly not worthy of a Best Picture nomination.
Life of Pi is the Transformers of book adaptations: its story comes second to its graphics and it pretends that it’s saying more then it actually is. The only difference is that this film had all the parts to something great in it, which makes its failure taste far more bitter.
Though the visuals are great and the scenes on the boat are fun, the rest of the film lacks the depth and emotional resonance it needed to become something great. Ang Lee’s adaptation loses just about everything that made the novel special in favor of becoming little more than a special-effects driven adventure.
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