A few years ago, I travelled around South East Asia. This was a time before Kindles and iPhones were in their infancy. As a result, old-fashioned paper books proved to be a valuable currency. Probably the most popular title of all was, unsurprisingly, Howard Marks’ Mr Nice. But in close second was Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s remarkable tale of a shipwrecked boy and his menagerie of companions.
As we sat outside Cambodian coffee-shops, the familiar sight of a walking bookshelf would come waddling down the road – young men carrying tall boxes of counterfeit travel guides and novels for a few dollars each. Every one of these enterprising young merchandisers stocked Life of Pi – and it’s easy to see why.
Blending travel writing with fantasy and mysticism, the novel explores and blurs the boundaries between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, reality and realism, spirituality and pragmatism, truth and fiction. It’s a bold, beautiful book which – until now – had seemed impossible to film.
The story is that of young Pi Patel, whose father’s zoo is due to relocate from Pondicherry, India to Winnipeg, Canada. After sedating their animals and loading them onto a Japanese ship, the family set sail for their new life. They never get there. In a bravura showcase of special effects, the boat sinks.
A bruising, brutal scene, the sinking utilises 3D technology brilliantly by placing the audience in the midst of the chaos – lashing rain, whipping winds and crunching collisions paint a chaotic picture as the camera follows Pi through the boat in a vain attempt to rescue his family and their animals. It’s claustrophobic, exciting stuff – and culminates in Pi being bundled into a lifeboat with the most unlikely of shipmates: a broken-legged zebra, a maternal orang-utan, a vicious hyena – and a tiger named Richard Parker.
The heart of the movie is Pi’s journey across the ocean. Maybe it shouldn’t work – after all, there is little dialogue and the action is fanciful to say the least. But Pi’s ingenuity and determination are both gripping and beguiling. He manages to negotiate the dangers of the sea - and the greater dangers within his own lifeboat – with consummate skill.
Much has been made of the 3D effects in Life of Pi, and there are some exceptional moments – often involving the camera moving through water and into the open air. Occasionally the depth of field serves to illustrate the distance Pi manages to put between himself and his feline companion superbly – but i’m still not sure that 3D is wholly necessary here. There are some beautifully composed scenes (including one beautiful image which exactly mimics the book’s original cover) which would have looked equally as beautiful in two dimensions and, at times, it was possible to forget completely that the film was shot in 3D.
More impressive are the other special effects. The mirrored surface of the calm sea is stunning at times, the digitally created waves are ultra-realistic and, most impressively, the CGI animals are wholly convincing. Although four real cats were used in creating Richard Parker, he is, by and large, a digital creation. Never before has a CGI animal had such weight and heft. It was crucial that this should be the case – the film would have flopped terribly without a tiger we could believe in.
Even better than Richard Parker, however, is Suraj Sharma in the title role. His is a stunning performance, carrying the film alone for large sections and never being less than completely believable. He almost seems to grow before the audience’s eyes as his skin darkens and his body shape changes. It’s a dedicated and mature performance from an actor who will surely go on to achieve greater fame in the future.
Director Ang Lee doesn’t fudge the more mystical and religious aspects of the story, but doesn’t beat his audience over the head with them either. Instead, he uses Yann Martel’s framing device of an older Pi telling the story retrospectively to ask the important questions: is what we’ve seen real? And which version of the truth would we prefer to believe?