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'Life Of Pi,' An Emotionally Accurate Adaptation

Kay Chinn |
February 24, 2013 | 11:21 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

How does Ang Lee's movie stack up to Yann Martel's book? (Mariner Books).
How does Ang Lee's movie stack up to Yann Martel's book? (Mariner Books).
After seeing Life of Pi in December, I couldn’t wait to get Yann Martel’s original Booker Prize-winning novel, from which the film was adapted. The film is amazing—visually, emotionally and philosophically. So what is the novel like? Does it feel the same? What are the main differences?

The narration of the film basically follows the way the story is told in the novel. A writer takes us to Pi’s home in Montreal, where the middle-aged man tells us a story that he says would make people believe in God. Pi grew up in India and spent much of his childhood in his father’s zoo. He was passionate about faith and religion while his father was an atheist. When he was 17, the family was about to move to Canada and sell their animals there. A storm wrecked the Japanese freighter they took. Pi, alone on a lifeboat with several animals, finally manages to survive with a tiger he named Richard Parker. But in the end, middle-aged Pi tells the writer that there is another version of the story…

Ang Lee does a good job to faithfully transform the novel into a motion picture and makes it exciting. But the changes he has made to the story are quite interesting to explore—they show how different the two art forms are and highlight Ang Lee’s personal style.

My first impression after I finished the novel was that Ang Lee almost completely rules out the cruelty and violence in his film. The novel is quite bold in some parts. It talks about how visitors could be cruel to animals in the zoo; it tells readers how Pi has eaten the hyena; it describes the process of Pi taming Richard Parker in vivid details and the book spends lots of space on how to kill and eat a sea turtle…The novel never avoids being cruel and even bloody, for it is part of survival. But Ang Lee never shows any of it directly. Instead, the picture is breathtakingly beautiful and special effects are fantastic.

He most likely had to consider ratings and commercial reasons, but it’s also a smart move. Though leaving out these cruel descriptions, Lee still manages to convey the central themes and philosophical thinking in the novel. The film cannot go into great details like the novel to show Pi’s mentality while trying to survive, and actually seeing the cruelty is much harder than just reading about it. So Lee just treats the story like a fairytale, which makes it even more astonishing and thought-provoking to hear the second version of the story.

Lee also cuts a lot of the first part of the novel, in which Pi explores his faith in different religions. This part takes up quite some space in the novel, but Lee just briefly touches upon it. Instead, he chooses another way to convey religions in the film—by Pi’s mother and his first crush. Anandi does not exist in the novel. By creating this character, Lee attaches Pi to religion in a very emotional way. The dance and the lotus gesture could all be seen as symbols of religion in the film. The audience may not be patient enough to see Pi talk about religion with his mentors, but to hint at religion’s influence on him through his mother and the girl he likes makes a good story.

The screenwriter David Magee said the novel shows that we rely on narratives to explain the world. While some adaptations may be more factually accurate, they may not be more emotionally appealing. This is definitely the case with the adaptation of Life of Pi.

Reach Staff Reporter Kay Chinn here.





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