A Pretty, Good Piece of Pi

The Life of Pi   Ang Lee


The first movie of the new year for me, this was better than I had expected, but not as good as it should have been. When I wrote my review of the book for last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge, I talked about my fears that the film would Disneyfy the story. It did, in a way, but not in the way that I expected.

The major flaw with the film  is summed up in the tagline shown in the poster above.  It reads,  “BELIEVE THE UNBELIEVABLE”, while other marketing describes it as “a film that will make you believe in God”. The film replaces ambiguity and personal choice with crudely simplistic certainty. At one point In the film the narrator says to the adult Pi “You said the story would make me believe in God”, and Pi replies, “Yes, that will come”. He never says anything of the sort in the book. The character who tells the narrator about Pi says that, Pi does not.

The book is all about the choice to believe or not to believe. Pi made a choice, and although it seems fairly clear that he encourages readers to make the same one, in the book that is all he does, encourage and suggest by implication. The book does not “make you believe in God” or order you to “believe the unbelievable”. This dogmatism runs counter to the spirit of the book, and it’s easy to see why many fans of the book were disappointed, some even angrily so, at what the film makers did. I was not angry, because I expected  something like this to happen. The nuance in the book was swept away in favour of the visual spectacle.

The film did not do justice to the book’s theme, but it certainly did to its imagery. Especially the 3D – simply stunning. Gorgeous and beautifully effective. There was an almost complete absence of gimmicky “in your face” 3D, instead the film’s 3D added depth and believability to the imagery. It was a beautiful experience, easily as good as Hugo, the only other film I liked for its 3D. The film brought many of the images of the book to life with perfect faithfulness and in doing so, brought the book back to mind. I squirmed through scenes in the film that I squirmed through while reading. The CGI was equally superb. It may not have made anyone believe in God, but it was very easy to believe that Suraj Sharma as the young Pi was sharing a boat with a very real Bengal tiger.

Another highlight of the film for me was the Indian presence. Suraj Sharma as the young Pi was very good, remarkably so for a debut performance. Watching him in this made me think about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and how much better that film could have been with an Indian actor playing the lead, rather than a British actor of Indian origin.  Irrfan did very well as the adult Pi too, although the simplification of the storyline wasted his talent a bit.The highlight of the casting for me was seeing Tabu back on screen.I’d completely forgotten she was in it, and was very excited when I saw her.  Her role was not large, but it was so good to see one of my favourite Indian actresses getting significant screen time again.
 My sister-in-law said of the book after seeing the film “I will have to track it down. I’ve never been a book worm but it’s such an incredible story”. I hope that the film encourages people to make the same choice she did, because the book lets its readers make their own choice, in a way this visually rich and beautiful film did not.

4 Replies to “A Pretty, Good Piece of Pi”

  1. I totally agree with you on the 3D, I almost want to see the film again just to fully appreciate what it added. And I adored Suraj Sharma, what an excellent choice (I hated Marigold Hotel for many reasons, one of which how bad Dev Patel was in it, sadly)

    I do think the film redeemed itself when the adult Pi challenges the writer on which story he would prefer, which IIRC the book also challenges us as readers to think about. But too many times, I was frustrated with how determined the film was to have young Pi, and us, believe in God.

    But it was a very good choice as first film for 2013 for me. And Ang Lee redeemed himself after what was, for me, the utterly dire Brokeback Mountain, another film of pretty scenery that bored me witless. Only rarely did I feel as if I'd been on that boat with Pi for far too many of the 227 days.

  2. Thanks Katherine. I think you're right about the end too, fair pint.Even as someone who's made the same as Pi, I was frustrated at the manipulation of the story. The only thing that really made me angry was the removal from the story of his evangelically atheist teacher. In the book, Pi was more respectful and accepting of those who choose not to believe The removal of one such character was an example of the film's agenda, I think.

    1. I agree that the 3D was fantastic, and those who haven't read the book would be less likely to be disappointed by the film's creative liberties. I do not think that comparisons are unfair, at least not intrinsically so. Any movie created from an existing work of literature will automatically and rightly be compared to its source material. Acknowledgements must be made for the different media, and no one should expect a movie to be exactly as they perceived the book to be. But since a film adaptation, especially these days, is trading off prior art by using that prior work's reputation to gain viewers, comparisons are inevitable. This can be seen by the frequency with which those involved in producing a film adaptation of a book will make such comparisons themselves.

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