THE BOOK by Yann Martel
I always thought that "Life of Pi" was an inspirational book. For that reason, I did not really intend to read it. This is the guy who took months to read "The Alchemist" and did NOT like it! However, with the news of the new Ang Lee film which had been touted to be "The New Avatar," I wanted to read it before the movie came out. They had called the book "unfilmable" and I wanted to see why so. I read "Life of Pi" without really knowing what is was about.
The first part of the book was about a young boy from Pondicherry in India, with an unwieldy name of Piscine Molitor Patel. After being continually teased about it, he discovered later that it was way cooler to call himself "Pi." His dad ran the local zoo. Chapters were spent describing the zoo, its animals and why zoos are good for animals.
The narrative then turned to religions. Chapters were spent to describe three major religions in India - Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. There was one spectacular chapter where the Patels meet a HIndu brahmin, a Christian priest and a Moslem imam, and the debates that ensued were fascinating to read..
Then there was a sudden turn in the story when the Patel patriarch decide to migrate his family to far-off Canada. They closed the zoo, brought with them some of their animals on a Japanese cargo ship and set sail. Upon leaving the port of Manila though, then the real story begins as their ship sinks and Pi was set adrift on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and an adult Bengal tiger (whom they have named Richard Parker).
From that point up to practically the end of the book, Martel describes how Pi was able to survive several months in the open sea, under the constant threat of the elements, of hunger and thirst, of sharks, and of a tiger on the boat with him waiting to eat him alive. The battles Pi waged with nature were very graphically described. There was a long chapter devoted to a strange island of algae and meerkats where the water turns acidic at night. For me, that part about the island was the most unusual of the book, it was almost too fantastic.
Pi finally reached dry land in Mexico. Two Japanese investigators interview him about his ordeal. At this point of the book, we get an idea of what really happened all those months at sea, or do we?
Mr. Martel is very good in the art of verbal description. There were several chapters where you felt he was just padding the novel to make it longer. Do we really need to know so much about the sloth for instance? I must say that the zoo part was long, but we get to learn a lot about how to run it. The part about the lifeboat survival, but we learn so much about sea survival technology or animal psychiatry. The main story is the shipwreck and Pi's survival, and Martel was able to stretch this to 100 chapters.
So, this is not really an inspirational book, is it? I believe this book is unfilmable the way it was written by Martel. There have been films about shipwrecks and survivors before, but not described like this. Now we get word that Ang Lee was actually able to create a film that was better than the book. The film was described to be like "The Little Prince." I thought this book was nothing like "The Little Prince" at all now. How Ang Lee did it, now THAT remains to be seen.
THE MOVIE by Ang Lee
I have just finished reading the book the other day, and today I got to watch the film version. With the book still so fresh in my head, I went into the cinema with very high expectations. This is specially so after reading and hearing reviews which call Ang Lee's cinematic masterpiece visually comparable to "Avatar" or philosophically comparable to "The Little Prince," as well as all of the awards buzz.
The book for me was a pleasant though slow read because of the lengthy wordy, even flowery, descriptions Yann Martel uses for his languid reflection on zoo life, his comparative study of Hindu, Christian and Moslem philosophy, and of course, his survival tale at sea by a teenager and a Bengal tiger sharing one lifeboat. It waxes philosophical in the beginning, then waxes fantastical in the middle, before settling for dry reality at the end. While a movie could probably improve on the imagery for each scene, there are several key parts of the novel that would entail a lot of narration. On the big screen, too much narration cannot be too good.
My first assumption turned out to be true. The cinematography and visual effects were expectedly first rate and excellent. Those camera angles were breathtaking. The colors were very vibrant. The special effects regarding animals were realistic for the most part, especially the land mammals, particularly Richard Parker. Though I have to say that the water creatures were too obviously computer-generated, not too good. A most triumphant sequence in the film for me were the scenes on the floating green island of algae and meerkats. I thought that was ideally visualized and executed, so much better than that chapter of the book.
My second assumptions also turned out true. A lot of the story needed to be narrated by an adult Pi Patel as he was being interviewed by a novelist researching for his next book. These bookending present day scenes were pretty dry for me. The whole last chapter of the book when Pi was interviewed by the Japanese shipping officials was all one long narration only without supporting imagery. All of this talky narration may be boring for some people.
In order to make the film appeal to more people, Ang Lee spares us from gory details which the book was not averse to describing in graphic detail. In the film, the screen time of the zebra, orangutan and hyena was very short. For all the brutality that was supposed to have happened on board, Ang's lifeboat remains almost pristine white. I thought that was quite merciful of Ang. I wish I could also say the same for some sappy melodramatic scenes, like Richard Parker laying his head on Pi's lap, which were not in the book.
Overall, this film version of "Life of Pi" is very good, but it can be disappointing for people who have read the book. It was a loyal albeit sanitized version of the book, which is not really a bad thing. The book was not exactly inspirational to me, more educational actually. For this film, Ang Lee seemingly aspired to make this movie inspirational, and these obvious efforts may prove to backfire for some audiences.