Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Thoughts about “Life of Pi” and book-to-film adaptations

life_of_pi_coverI just saw Life of Pi in the theatres last night with my fiancé and loved it.

I loved the visuals – the colours were bright and lush without being cloying. The score (which I’m listening to as I write this) was absolutely delightful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the images on the screen; where those were grand and sweeping, the music was intimate and tender. I love movie scores, but the only one I can think of that so enhanced the in-theatre experience was the one for The Fountain – another movie that asks big questions and has trippy visuals.

I also appreciated how faithful it remained to the book. Unlike Les Mis, which was hampered by slavishly following the musical, or The Hobbit, which made the Tolkien purist in me cringe, Life of Pi preserved the integrity of its source material while still adhering to the rules of film narrative. The only divergence I found jarring was the addition of the Obligatory Love Interest to Pi’s life before he leaves India.

Instead, the biggest difference between the two versions is one of tone. The novel had a deep vein of playfulness and meta-humour. In many cases in the book, you could see author Yann Martel winking at the reader between the lines, like when Pi says he can tell his story in 100 chapters – precisely the number of chapters in the book.

In contrast, Ang Lee plays it straight. Gone are the playful pokes at choosing between reason (Satish Kumar the Communist science teacher) and faith (Satish Kumar the religious baker). In the movie, these two poles of belief are predictably but sincerely replaced by Pi’s parents.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that sincerity is the hallmark of Ang Lee’s directorial style. His movies contain a lot of artifice, but they don’t wink at you. They don’t try to make you think that he’s being clever by inserting references to other movies, or encourage you to engage with him in a mutual feeling of superiority over the film’s protagonists. Instead, his films say “this happened, take it or leave it.”

Life of Pi is a film I’ll gladly take.

Many others have commented about the cutesy nature of the ending, in which Pi gives another, more brutal explanation for what happened after the ship sunk, and asks his audience to state which version they prefer. Most dismiss it as a stereotypical attempt to validate the Power of Storytelling. However, this ending is native to the book.

More importantly, I think it’s necessary because of the nature of the book’s framing device: Pi is telling this story to the author, and has told it in the past to the representatives of the Japanese shipping company – of course they aren’t going to believe him! But if it were told completely straight, without these people acting as surrogates for us, something would be lost. It is because we see Pi as an adult, and see how well he has adjusted to the world despite the horrors he has faced, that we are willing to accept the whimsy of a tiger in a lifeboat.

I think my enjoyment of book-to-film adaptations depends on which version I encounter first. As I mentioned in my review of the first Hunger Games movie, I was disappointed by its shallow exploration of some of the book’s most important themes. In contrast, while I like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, I absolutely love the movie version, which I saw before I read the book.

As an interesting hybrid of seeing the movie before reading the book or vice versa, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theatres, and then read the entire trilogy before The Two Towers was released. That, in addition to watching all of the special features on the LoTR DVDs, makes me understand and respect the changes that Jackson & co. made on the way to the big screen. However, I read The Hobbit when I was 10, and the idea of the same group of people turning it into a goddamned trilogy horrifies me.

Does this mean I’m unimaginative? I don’t know. But I do think that the rules of narrative are different between book and screen. The Hobbit is very conventional and film-friendly in comparison to The Lord of The Rings, so it made sense to drastically alter the latter books to make them fit on screen. Life of Pi was already a very visual book with a clear throughline (I’m confused by the idea that so many people thought it unfilmable), so I’m happy with its transition from one medium to another.

What about you? What did or didn’t work about this movie? What book-to-film adaptations do you love or hate?