As far as premises go, “Life of Pi” is certainly one of a kind: the story of a boy who follows Hinduism, Christianity and Islam is stranded in the middle of the ocean with an adult Bengal tiger. Add in some fascinating survival tales, some captivating viewpoints on faith and a stunning conclusion and you’ve got a modern-day classic. Yann Martel’s book was published in 2001, and earlier this month, a movie adaptation came out. The film is directed by Ang Lee, the man behind “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Lee’s visual talents are on full display in “Life of Pi,” as the wonders of the Pacific are brought out to their fullest; the colors and creatures at times seem almost too beautiful to be real.
Lee sticks to the source material almost to a T. There are few variations from the story, and the structures are largely parallel, too. The book is told mostly through the first-person perspective of the grown-up Pi, with a few breaks in Part 1 where the book’s “writer” interjects notes about Pi as an adult and the recorded insurance interview at the end. In the film, Lee intersperses scenes of Pi’s past with adult Pi and the writer in conversation, all with the fluid, constant transitions that have become a staple of Lee’s style.
The only differences I could pick out were a few instances on the ocean where Lee decided to give the audience an extra visual spectacle and the odd inclusion of a love interest for young Pi in India (an addition that wasn’t needed to make Pi upset about leaving home and that has no payoff in the end). Also, the book can afford to be more graphic regarding the ferocious nature of the tiger and the other animals that initially inhabit the lifeboat, as well as the multitude of unpleasant things that Pi has to do and suffer through to get by.
Of course, the story itself is more than strictly the plot, especially in the case of “Life of Pi.” Without getting too much into spoilers, Pi’s tale of survival (unlike most survival stories I’ve read, this one leaves no doubt from the get-go that the character beats the odds and lives at the end) that he tells throughout the novel might not be what technically happened. He leaves it to those hearing the tale to decide whether the events he described are what factually happened or whether they are an allegory for what truly transpired on that lifeboat. It is here that major themes such as faith, established early on but placed into the background during Pi’s fight for survival, come roaring back for a powerful finish.
Both the book and film versions include Pi telling another version of the novel to a pair of insurance agents, but the movie adds an extra element: In continuing with the framing of the rest of the movie, the interview scene includes cuts to the conversation between adult Pi and the writer. This offers another outside perspective on what it all means, and though it works well enough in the movie, it weakens the impact of the moment to give the audience another buffer level. Of course, the writer is still there in the book as it is ultimately his account (or his notes, technically) we are reading, but keeping the conversation strictly between the original participants gives that moment when a new light dawns on the past 370-some pages a different kind of power. The movie also leaves out a moment where Pi goes blind for a while on the ocean, during which time a strange event takes place that really serves as a hint that reality may not be what it seems. Looking back, I found it one of the more interesting portions of the book, and a part that would not have been possible to properly replicate on screen.
Ultimately, I can’t complain about either version. The film is beautiful, and would probably be worth it to check out in 3D (not something I often say). For the more complete and impactful story, though, as usual, read the book.