Life of Pi: the Book and the Movie

“Which story do you prefer?”

Have you been following the trailers for Life of Pi?

After months of anticipation, I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of it last night. The new movie is the cinematic adaptation of Yann Martel’s celebrated 2001 novel, is directed by Ang Lee, and has been generating Oscar buzz for weeks thanks to its imaginative art direction and astounding special effects. But there’s more about the film you should know…

There are a lot of movie adaptations set to be released in the upcoming months–The Hobbit, Anna Karenina, and The Great Gatsby to name a few–the wait for which brings excitement to the literary masses, though the products often bring disappointment; avid readers time after time conclude that the magic that comes with reading a novel just cannot be translated onto the big screen. And I am usually one of them.

But Life of Pi is a unique case. For one thing, I actually didn’t even enjoy the book all that much. My apologies in advance to the die-hard fans out there, because I know you’re there; the novel has such a polarizing effect, it seems that everyone I’ve ever talked to about it either loved it or couldn’t finish it. On the one hand, its manuscript was rejected by five publishing houses before it was accepted by Knopf, on the other it was endorsed by President Obama in a private letter to Martel as, “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Oh yes, and it won the Man Booker Prize in 2002.

What kind of precedence does that set for its translation into film? Well, having watched the movie, I can say that it’s given me a new appreciation for Martel’s storytelling. His writing, so hard for me to get through on paper, has been transformed into a format that can celebrate all of its surrealist qualities and make them magical. Just watch the scenes on meerkat island if you don’t believe me.

But you’d have to celebrate that surreality to make the film a success. In a novel, the allegorical tale of a boy sharing a lifeboat with a massive Bengal tiger just works. In a movie, the fact that it’s impossible to throw your lead actor in with a real-life mankiller is only upstaged by the greater challenge of bringing character to the animal and making him real. On that I will only say that I was told that fewer than a quarter of the tiger shots in the film depicted a non-CG tiger. Good luck picking out which ones. Not only do we end up believing Richard Parker is real and alive, but we, like Pi, believe in his soul, all thanks to the reality-bending technology of computer graphics and the artistry of Parker’s animators.

Because of his embrace of the novel’s surreality, director Ang Lee has not only managed to retell Martel’s story, but to bring to it a spark of magic that is normally only reserved for the original book, something relatively unheard of in an adaptation.

Based on Martel’s own words from the novel, I think he’d agree:

“That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”

Life of Pi

So, are you excited to see a movie based on this bestselling book? What are your thoughts and expectations for movie adaptations, or this one in particular?

More on Life of Pi from eNotes:

The Life of Pi eNotes Study Guide, a perfect reading companion complete with chapter summaries and analysis. Have a question? Post it to our Q&A area for the novel and our expert editors will provide answers.

Test your knowledge of the novel with eNotes’ Life of Pi Study Questions.

Teachers, planning on teaching Life of Pi in the classroom? We have an eNotes exclusive Teaching Unit to help you with that, plus related lesson plans from Prestwick House Publishers to aid your instruction.


4 Comments on “Life of Pi: the Book and the Movie”

  1. H-Reff says:

    Preach, lady. I did not enjoy the book at all, but I was fully aware after I read it that describing the story made it sound so awesome; it just fell flat on the page. This book was (perhaps not consciously) made to be a movie.

  2. Wow. This sounds amazing, both the book and the movie.

  3. Dizzy says:

    I actually forgot that I read the book, thoroughly enjoyed it. Looking forward to see how the director managed to capture the story. Oh, I am the only of my peers who like the book ;-)

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