Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published January 1st 2013
Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi has been described as unfilmable. There are several reasons for this. The story involves a child, various animals and a large expanse of water. The first two can be unpredictable to work with, hence the adage about never work with children and animals, and many a film set primarily out at sea has run into financial strife (think Waterworld). Even Titanic went crazily over budget and was looking like a financial disaster until it became the highest grossing film of all time (pre-Avatar).
The first issue of child actors has been partly resolved by casting someone who is a few years older than the character in the book. While in the past this has been done to the detriment of a film, ie. Interview with a Vampire and both adaptations of Lolita, in Life of Pi it doesn't cause such a problem. Lolita and Vampire lost their confronting edge but Pi's story is much the same even though the 14 year old is played by Suraj Sharma, who was 19 at the time of filiming.
Most of Pi's co-stars are animals, and thanks to modern technology, CGI dictates that they can be manipulated to do anything the director wants them to. The result for the most part is very effective.
In addition to the animals, CGI is used extensively during the ocean-set leg of the story. Scenes involving storms, including a very impressive one of an ocean liner sinking, are very impressive, particularly in 3D which is really the only way to see this film.
Another reason why the book has been described as unfilmable is because of a tricky ending which I won't reveal here, but anyone who's read the book will be wondering how director Ang Lee has addressed something which is hard to express in filmic terms. The end result doesn't work as well on screen and the film loses dramatic impact because of it.
Life of Pi works very well on the surface, as a one-boy survival story. It is eye-poppingly good to look at and is often gripping and moving - and I should imagine too distressing for some of the little kids that are being taken along to see it. On a deeper level, as an exercise in existentialism, it isn't quite as successful.