Going into a religious allegory like Life of Pi, you expect an abundance of meerkats, and Life of Pi, sadly, has only a moderate amount of meerkats.
Yann Martel’s award-winning novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a religion-preoccupied Indian boy who obsessively studies and successively converts to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, saying that he “just wants to love God,” much to the chagrin of the Atheist father who named him after a swimming pool (Pi being short for “Piscine Molitor,” after a particularly fine pool in France). Young Piscine, who shortens his name to Pi in tribute to his favorite band, A Perfect Circle (not really), and his childhood obsession with religion, is the first of the three-part novel, the second part being Pi’s journey across the ocean stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, after the container ship transporting his family’s zoo across the ocean goes down in a storm (a zoo on a boat, isn’t that wacky?!). The third part is Pi’s subsequent retelling of this story to disbelieving shipping agents. “Which story do you prefer?” he asks.
The journey, then, becomes an allegory for mankind’s incomplete attempt to explain their relationship to God through religion. Whoa…
Tigers = God, get it? Don’t worry, you will, because it’s all a little facile and didactic. Themes will be introduced, re-introduced, and then overtly explained with big Looney Tunes acme signs, just in case. All the characters even have cutesy names, a spoonful of quirk to help the medicine go down (besides the titular Pi-because-of-a-swimming pool, there’s also the tiger named Richard Parker, the result of a clerical error). And with its unitarianish, pan-theistic spiritualism, adorable third-world immigrant boy narrator, and general, faux-exotic feel-good liberalism, it’s like catnip for every baby boomer in Yoga class, the perfect complement to the soccer-mom regimen of acupuncture, Christmas shopping, and Kabbalah. Awards? Count on it.
And you know what? I love it. It’s a great f*cking book. You throw out every allegorical religious element and you’ve still got a kid on a lifeboat with a hyena, a tiger, and an orangutan, told in a way that actually makes it believable. It’s a hell of a premise, and don’t even get me started on the edible carnivorous island covered in meerkats. Seriously, give me a meerkat island over a melancholic semi-autobiographical tale of a romantic bohemian trying to find his place in an alienating world any day. It helps that even though the story is limousine-liberal crack and probably gives Aaron Sorkin a big boner, in Martel’s hands, it doesn’t feel like bullshit. It feels like he was genuinely trying to answer some questions for himself and not just trying to get on Oprah’s book club. A little hokey, sure, but trying to find your own way to love God, it isn’t the worst theme in the world.
So… how does the movie adaptation fare? Well, it’s got a lot of CGI. I mean seriously, more like LIFE OF CGI, am I right?!?
Okay, so that doesn’t quite cover it. Ang Lee’s 3D cinematography, when shooting scenes of every day Indian life, is incredible. The first part of the story, which was always my least favorite of the book, because it reminds me of every immigrant-clashes-with-traditional-parents story from a Margaret Cho bit (albeit flipped in this case), is actually my favorite of the movie. The Spielberg-ish child-like innocence schtick is worth putting up with just for the way Ang Lee shoots pools and zoos and saris and shrines. It’s so vivid and so pretty, you can almost smell the curry. Haha, I’m just kidding, that’s racist.
Anyway, the problem Lee runs into is that those fantastical parts of the book that look so incredible in your imagination look kind of chintzy in CGI. I’m not saying the VFX guys don’t do an incredible job creating a digital tiger (which solves the inherent problem of not wanting to get your actor eaten), or that you can always tell where the real tiger shots end and the CGI tiger shots begin, but CGI only has to be recognizable as CGI once for it to take you out of the story. And the CGI in Life of Pi is noticeable a lot more than once. The orangutan in particular never comes close to being believable. And noticing technical flaws is that much more distracting when the story in question is supposed to be some profound religious allegory. Just imagine a bunch of disciples standing around going, “Pff, whatever, dude, that’s not even a real cross. Shoulda gotten Andy Serkis to play Satan.”
The technical issues are understandable, and perhaps an unavoidable consequence of trying to adapt a fantastical novel about tigers on boats, but there are structural problems as well. In the book, part three is a bloody story of human violence and sacrifice starring the ship’s murderous cook, pi’s mother, and an unfortunate sailor – Pi’s retelling the story of his journey to agents from the shipping company, narrated much the same way as the tiger-and-edible-island parts, and just as vivid. Or at least, that’s how I remember it. In the movie, it doesn’t get the same treatment, just Pi telling the story verbally while the Japanese agents listen in. Thus, the whole Christiano-Islamic leg of the allegory gets short shrift – the worst of all the shrifts!
In the book, as in the movie, the story begins with an adult Pi telling his story through flashback to a visiting writer, an extra frame, sort of like The Princess Bride. Can’t complain about having a wonderful actor like Irrfan Khan around to play the middle-aged Pi (check him in The Namesake, the dude hangs dong), but Pi’s visitor says he’s come around because he’s heard Pi has “a story that will make me believe in God,” it’s hard not to roll your eyes. I mean really? This story wasn’t reductive enough already? Do we really need the extra frame? If Ang Lee was a UFC fighter, his scouting report would definitely include “heavy hands.” In that way, he and Martel are kindred spirits. Lee handles the emotional arc of the book well, for the most part, but the movie can’t quite overcome its inherent hokeyness the way the book does. Some of the best parts of the book get lost in imperfect pacing and not-quite-good-enough CGI.
Life of Pi is a loving, well-intentioned, but not-quite-perfect attempt to bring a really good book to life. Maybe next time, throw out the CGI and spend the money on a couple of extra Indian kids, in case the first two get eaten. Oh, and more meerkats. You can never have too many meerkats. A dearth of meerkats is what ruined The Reader.