Book and Film Review: Life of Pi

The Book

You won’t find Life of Pi on the Young Adult shelf in any bookstore, but there’s no significant reason why it shouldn’t be. It follows Piscine (Pi) Patel as a young boy growing up in India, and the bulk of the book is devoted to Pi’s time as a teenager – specifically, his time spent adrift at sea in a lifeboat, with a tiger.

Pi’s story does have moments of great violence, and great sadness – but no more so than you’d find in a YA book by Sonya Hartnett, Margo Lanagan, or Suzanne Collins.

Life of Pi is literature, and very good literature, as testified by its collection of awards (including the 2002 Man Booker prize). This is certainly no reason to exclude it from a YA audience, but could well be why adults are so keen to claim it as their own. (Being first published in Canada in 2001 may well be another factor. I am, quite frankly, ignorant on Canadian book publishing and marketing tactics.)

The book is brilliant. Pi is recounting his great story (and other, smaller stories that are not without their own moments of greatness) to the author. It is recorded diligently in first-person, but is occasionally littered with the author’s asides as he offers observations on Pi’s manner, appearance, and the like. True to its implied aural roots, the storytelling is melodic in rhythm, vivid in imagery, and intense in emotion. Reading it is akin to lying down on a sheltered beach and having the waves lap at your heels (slowly drowning you with the rising tide). The plot is a little slow in the middle, but by that stage you are too far immersed in the journey, and by the end you are glad you hung on because the resolution is challenging and haunting. It is a story that begs to be shared, a book that opens dialogues and stimulates conversation.

Regardless of how you choose to classify it, Life of Pi is already enjoyed by the occasional teen, and with the release of the film it’s a great opportunity to recommend the book to any (older) teen readers interested in art, magic, story-telling, animals, religion, survival, adventure, heart-ache, and/or humanity.

The Film

Life of Pi is about as perfect as adaptation gets. A few characters condensed here, some emotional stakes increased there… just a few tweaks that are essential in translating the written word into an engaging visual performace. And oh what a performance it is!

All four actors that play Pi Patel across his various stages of life portray him perfectly – from a questioning boy, to an anguished teen, to the zen-like repose of a man who has survived troubled times. When you spend over an hour with Pi almost-alone in a boat - severely geographically and conversationally restricted – you’re going to need some fine acting to portray the kind of inner emotional journey that character is experiencing. Suraj Sharma definitely provides it.

Similarly, you’re going to need some fine CGI (or some very talented animal wranglers) to have that kind of Bengal tigal on-screen time. Again, Life of Pi delivers. It has amazing footage and digital effects that not only bring a whole zoo to the screen, but a whole character to life in Richard Parker (the infamous tiger). As well as making animals real, director Ang Lee delivers an utterly saturated, beautiful cinemascape of life at sea. 3D is used to the best effect I’ve ever seen – it is not flashy or showy, but instead provides depth to the ocean and distance to the horizon.

For those that have read the book, the film is impressively tactful in placing subtext throughout the film that hints at the story’s ending, without partiality or didacticism. For those that haven’t read the book, it’s definitely a film that will reward multiple viewings. The story of Pi – both in book and film - offers us a choice. What message we take from that is up to us. For myself, I find significance in the ideas that art is beauty, and belief is powerful.

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