A visual triumph from director Ang Lee as he turns Yann Martel’s Man Booker prize winning novel into a magical fairy tale…
Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounts his life to a writer (Rafe Spall) who’s been told it would make a great book. The man, who was named ‘Piscine Molitor’ after a swimming pool, tells the extraordinary story of a young man from Pondicherry, India, and how he managed to stay alive after being shipwrecked and stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker.
Rather famously Yann Martel’s book Life Of Pi was turned down by at least five London publishing houses before finding a publisher. When it was published in 2001, it quickly became a bestseller, winning Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year. At a certain point in the early nougties you could hardly sit on a tube or train carriage without seeing two or three people reading. I know I was one of them.
(And now we have Fifty Shades of Grey. Progress? Really?)
So how do you adapt such a well-known and even well loved work, enjoyed by millions? I, for one, had great misgivings when I first heard it would become a film. Even when director Ang Lee became attached to the project, despite his having an impressive track record for making solid adaptations of books including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Sense and Sensibility and Lust, Caution.
I just didn’t see how the book could possibly be filmed, how such an incredible story could be made real? And that’s the key to Lee’s vision of Yann Martel’s book: rather than make it more real, he grabs the fantastical elements and paints a far more magical fairy tale of it. In a sense, taking Martel’s sugar coating of a horrendous story of survival, and running with it.
Lee treats it as a tall tale, styling it like a picture book. The result is beautiful on every level; from the location filming in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu (which really does look like that – expect the town’s tourism to rise in the next year) to the time spent adrift in the lifeboat, where he creates a magical, but credible world, such as when Pi floats though the area alive with phosphorescent plankton and jellyfish.
The key to making this work lies in the technology behind it; the CGI has to be believable. The moment you see the joins and become aware of the CGI, the effect is ruined. Believing in Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger, for instance, is paramount, and amazingly he is. Very rarely do you consciously think it’s been created on a computer. Here the 3D really does add to the film by adding to the storybook, pop-up book quality, in much the same way Park Hong-Min’s A Fish did.
(I noticed a rather cunning bit of trickery with the 3D. Occasionally the widescreen ratio is increased to trick you into thinking things are coming out of the screen at you.)
Interestingly this is Lee’s first feature-length effort without longtime writing partner James Schamus. Instead David Magee, known previously for work on Finding Neverland and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, to help adapt the story. Perhaps the most notable change from the book is that much less time spent with Pi and the floating menagerie from the early stages of the shipwreck.
Lee shows great restraint in how he films Pi’s alternative account of the shipwreck to the Japanese ship insurance investigators. He centres on Suraj Sharma as Pi in one shot, not allowing audiences to imagine the horrific events as they would have with the book. Sharma’s incredible performance as the 16 year-old Pi should be applauded too. It’s an impressive debut from a young actor who literally has to play so much of the film as a one-man show, literally against CGI creatures and environments that are not there at all.
Life Of Pi is an absolutely beautiful, enchanting, extraordinary film. True to the spirit of Yann Martel’s original work, it could just be one of the best book adaptions I think I’ve ever seen. At no point did I feel aggrieved at what had been left out (and at least it hasn’t been split into two or three movies). And it’s a film in 3D that actually makes good use of the technique.
A triumph and a must-see movie…
Life Of Pi is available now on 3D Blu-Ray + Blu-Ray + UV Copy, Blu-Ray + UV and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Home media details
Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (UK)
Editions: 3D Blu-Ray, Blu-Ray or DVD (2013)
The deluxe 3D Blu-Ray edition comes on two discs, with the 2D edition included for all those of us of have still don’t have a 3D telly. Yep, that’s me.
With both discs including different extras, there’s plenty of features to watch: from extensive featurettes on the making of, totalling nearly one and a half hours; to gallery and storyboards. On the 3D Blu-Ray disc there are Deleted scenes which mainly show a longer build up to the sinking of the Tsimstum and VFX progressions, making an impressive package.