Breathing Life into Pi

by Liv Lansdale

You'd be hard pressed these days to find a movie not based on a book. On the Lincoln:Vampire Hunter/ Lincoln à la Team of Rivals spectrum, today's theatergoers face Twilight, Cloud Atlas, Anna Karenina, and soon, Silk and Fifty Shades of Grey (new spectrum-markers, I'll bet anything).  As someone who's had the pain of witnessing her favorite books give birth to wretched movies (in increasing order of disgrace: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lolita, and Feast of Love), I've given a lot of thought to what it takes to make or break a book-based movie. But I didn't have any idea until last night, when I went to see Ang Lee's breathtaking Life of Pi.

Going in, I had serious doubts.  I remembered Lee's Crouching Tiger as beautiful, but just as great with the sound off.  It was the type of movie that would have been a mind-numbing book. Life of Pi may have a boatload of cinematic imagery, but I love Martel's debut novel most for its philosophical bent.  I'm a sucker for the sentence, and I thought no piece of footage could adequately recreate, say, the line, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Much of the book's glory comes from the feat of the main character's monologue, its gigantic thought/action ratio. What movie is going to encompass Pi's mental journey, I thought, when that would require some three hours of no footage but a skinny kid dodging a tiger in a boat? I entered the theater cynically, expecting to discover the arbitrary addition of at least half a zoo full of critters to amp up the excitement.

I was wrong. Because not only did screenwriter David Magee (of Finding Neverland fame) flawlessly select the most suitable handful of quotes from the book, but he also had the grace to throw Lee a few ropes (or else, like the tiger, learned to take orders very well).  For instance, the tiger's first appearance is queued simply by three escalating "Come on!"s, shouted to a dark space beneath a tarp in the lifeboat (from which it then springs like a circus animal).  It was less showy in the book, but Magee recognizes that even in a tale about stripping away and letting go, it's okay to indulge in a little razzle-dazzle.  This is the movies, after all.

In fact, the sparseness of dialogue grants Lee a lot of freedom, which he takes advantage of so brilliantly that it keeps the movie afloat when the goings get rough. Picture the manuscript as an oar and his aesthetic as bioluminescent waters. At one point, the dialogue teeters toward the old stoned-college-student-examining-his-hand cliché ("I can't tell day dreams, night dreams, from reality anymore,” says a starving Pi. But the moment is swallowed up by a spectacular phantasmagoric montage juxtaposing sea creatures, zoo animals, characters, and galaxies –as eclectic and wonderful as Pi's own religious leanings. In a particularly cool moment, the camera zooms in on Pi's mother's bindi to reveal an animated rendition of a still from an Indian comic book in which Krishna's mouth contains the entire universe. That's not quite the kind of trick you can pull on the page.

With its dozens of adages and axioms, there's a lot to learn from Life of Pi. The most interesting lesson may be that the key to a making quality book-based film is to maintain a delicate balance. Synergy is more important than the presence of two geniuses, as recently evidenced in the incompatible influences of both Spielberg and Kushner in Lincoln. You can't taint a perfect would-be last line with a beautiful death scene. You can't sacrifice a good show for the sake of fidelity to a work of another medium.  As with certain tigers, a book must be trained but not tamed.  Lee and Magee have laid claim to a new standard of literary movie.  I hope they embark on another journey together soon.