“A story that will make you believe in God.”
This is how Piscine Patel’s journey, both in the novel Life of Pi and in Ang Lee’s film adaptation, is introduced to an aspiring writer who comes to visit an adult Patel in Canada, years after his treacherous affair through the Pacific. In the movie, Pi’s story excites, enchants, and bewilders — it is wholly uplifting all the way through. If you enter the tale ready and willing to accept any piece of incredulity as proof of a higher authority, you’ll walk away from Pi’s thrill-ride ensconced in a bolstered faith. But there is something otherwise necessary to really instill the majesty and power of Pi’s story that the movie seems to overlook: the negative. At least to the degree it is served in Yann Martel’s classic novel.
In the book, we see a good deal of Pi’s life prior to his seafaring voyage, mostly confined to his perspectives on his father’s zoo. We meet several figures who had a hand in shaping Pi’s mind and philosophy — teachers and holy men (of the Hindu, Catholic, and Muslim faiths) who are understandably cut from or reduced within the film, presumably in the interests of time or precision.
A character to whom the movie does uniquely introduce us while on dry land is Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger who’d eventually become Pi’s comrade through his death-defying journey from India to Mexico. In the film, Richard Parker is adorned with Pi’s reverence as the most wonderful animal in the zoo, while a literary Pi affixed a good deal of his attention on sloths and rhinoceroses — another understandable institution by Lee: if we’re going to spend an entire adventure with this cat, we should probably get attached to him from the get-go. But a small inkling of the dreamy, Disney-like attitude that Lee’s Life of Pi would be taking throughout.
Once the Patel family sets sail, the story begins — the book jumps immediately to the disaster that sends Pi stranded on the open waters, while the movie gives us time to build tension on the ill-fated ship, eventually exploding into the most beautiful, vivid, and terrifying ship-sinking scene in the past 15 years of cinema. When Pi awakens on the bow of his lifeboat, skies clear and animals in tow, a state of tranquility sets in to soften the blow of the horrible tragedy that has just befallen our hero. In the movie, this tranquility becomes the standard: Pi is lonely, sad, frustrated, and scared, but we hardly ever see him (or his wild friends) suffer. In the book, suffering drips from every one of Martel’s increasingly mad words.
The real culprit here is the MPAA rating. Branded with a PG, the movie doesn’t have the free range to exhibit Pi’s physical anguish, nor the brutal killings of his orangutan and zebra friends at the hands of that vicious pest the hyena. The deaths of these animals are heavy and dense in the literature. They are not just low points, they are ghosts that haunt the boat from thereon out. Pi’s sickeningly descriptive illustration of the hyena’s consumption of the zebra and beheading of the orangutan help to institute just how dastardly his situation is. The same can be said for literary Pi’s indulgent explanations of his own physical turmoil: his thirst, his starvation, the torture being imparted upon his constitution and his frying, blistering skin. Pi reserves no detail, allowing us to experience fully every bit of agony that he and Richard are enduring. In the movie, be this a case of censorship, time sensitivity, or simply an artistic choice by Lee, such suffering is not felt. Instead, we’re treated to a wild, free-wheeling, magical journey — sometimes sad and sometimes scary, yes, but never emitting the true sentiment of hopelessness to which the book so vigorously attends.
In this vein, the movie opts to omit some of the film’s darkest, grittiest scenes: the intestinal issues facing Pi and Richard Parker; the decay of the dead animals onboard the ship; Pi’s dispirited killing of various sea turtles, and the consumption of their blood; and, most notably, a scene in which Pi goes completely blind (temporarily) and happens upon a fellow waterlogged survivor who attempts (an idea never fully acknowledged by Pi) to kill and eat him… before facing the violent wrath of Richard Parker.
The difficulty in pulling off a scene effectively delivering Pi’s newfound visual impairment, from his perspective no less, might well have been the reason for this scene’s omission — especially since the book intentionally left the identity of the cannibalistic survivor (a Frenchman, suggesting that he might have been the cook from the same ship that doomed Pi) unconfirmed. This is perhaps one of the strongest and most memorable scenes in the novel, during which Pi deludes himself into believing that Richard Parker is the one speaking to him, and likewise, into believing that his new friend had nothing but the purest of intentions for joining Pi on his lifeboat. It is, in truth, a dark and somber scene — the dangling of hope and humanity in front of Pi and the reader just to snatch it away in all forms. It represents some of the lowest depths to which the book drops; the movie, however, doesn’t dare dive so deep.
There is indeed something wonderful about Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. It not only lives up to some of the most wonderful, uplifting imagery of Martel’s writing, but far exceeds it — a visual spectacle unprecedented in cinema, Lee’s camerawork does have the flare of poetry. But unfortunately, the director only applies his skills to the “bright,” the wondrous. For reasons presumably to do with attracting a young audience, the PG community, Lee strays from the dark and the morbid, with which Martel’s novel is riddled. And without the low points, the torture and the suffering, the delusions, we cannot truly understand the peaks and valleys Pi’s unbelievable journey. And without these, this isn’t quite a story that has earned the claim of making its audience believe in God.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]