December was a month that featured one literary adaptation that really lived up to my love of the book, and one that, although not really a bad film, was a huge let down when compared to the source material. There was also Jack Reacher – decent enough, but forgettable – and Pitch Perfect, which I loved but couldn’t write anything interesting about it. The Hobbit was something I had been excited about ever since the credits of Return of the King stopped rolling. I love the book, and I love the world of Middle Earth, so I was so glad that Peter Jackson was taking us back there. The result, however, was a crushing disappointment, bloated and full of superfluous material, much like this sentence that really you just want to end but I will, for the sake of it, add in extra clauses that don’t add to the overall meaning of the sentence, which by now you have probably forgotten. Thankfully Life of Pi, another one of my favourite books, was treated to a far better adaptation, and it takes the title of Best Live Action Film of December.
The correct critical approach to any film is to see it in isolation from anything that came before it, whether it is on set scandal, five previously terrible films or a source novel that you loved/hated. Every film should be given a chance to work in their own right before they are scrutinised in comparison to any context. For instance, several cinematic masterpieces, if judged on fidelity to the book, would be derided (Jaws is a famous example of this). So really, book and film are separate mediums and should be treated as such. Yet sometimes, it’s difficult to take a professional approach when whatever is being adapted is something really close to your heart. If the book is one of your absolute favourites it’s impossible (for this writer, at least) to totally separate the source from the adaptation. You desperately will it to be good, but you can’t help but fear that it won’t be able to recreate exactly how the book made you feel. Two of these very books have recently been adapted, but whilst we are yet to get Cloud Atlas in the UK, and I remain nervous about how they will adapt that literary behemoth, Life of Pi has now arrived here in a fanfare of critical acclaim and Coldplay riddled trailers. The book is really something special, any film adaptation has its work cut out.
Yann Martel’s novel is a wonderful, moving examination of faith and suffering, about a boy, Pi, who believes in Brahma, Allah and Jehovah and yet in spite of following three religions he still finds himself trapped on a lifeboat, his family dead at the bottom of the ocean, and with a Bengal tiger for company. Essentially it’s a story of survival, but it is so thematically rich that this journey takes on a cosmic significance, challenging secular cynicism and posing the question to all readers: what are you prepared to believe? It’s also funny, very informative on zoology and it doesn’t shy away from the occasionally grotesque reality of the animal kingdom. By the absolutely stunning finale of the book, you are moved, relieved, saddened, elated, provoked. The one thing the book is not, particularly, is easy to adapt for the big screen. Most of the film is just one boy (and a tiger) on a boat, so it’s hardly zinging with witty dialogue; the internal nature of the narration means that most of the drama goes on inside Pi’s head, enlivened by the occasional bit of tiger training. It’s also set largely at sea, which is notoriously difficult for filming, whilst the first act – almost a philosophical treatise as Pi explains how he became the person he is – does not flow into the second act all that naturally. It’s a thoughtful, weighty novel and so when M Night Shyamalan attached himself to the project, fans of the book were understandably worried. Thankfully, the director who eventually took on this tricky task was Ang Lee, who had previously shown an aptitude for balancing visual splendour with rich themes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain.
Under Lee’s assured direction, Life of Pi maintains the intelligence and wit of the book whilst getting the best from his incredible lead actor (newcomer Suraj Sharma), digital wizards and cameramen to create a thoroughly satisfying work of cinema, too. Any worries you might have going into the film that it won’t live up to the heady heights of the book can be assuaged here – Life of Pi works both as an adaptation and as a film in its own right. The film opens in Pondicherry Zoo, simply observing the different animals that live there whilst the credits roll. It’s a slow opening, letting us get used to the (admittedly stunning) 3D whilst showcasing Lee’s eye for a beautifully framed shot. It’s the calm before the storm (not literally, although one of them does come later), as once the plot kicks off, we are whizzed through all the important points of Pi’s life – how he got his nickname, how he chose his various religions etc. – barely stopping for a breath before we are on a liner full of animals, heading towards Canada. The first section doesn’t wholly work, as it repeatedly cuts back to a now adult Pi and the author to whom he is relaying the story; it’s a rather clunky framing device that dips in and out of the film whenever exposition is needed. There are some stunning moments, as Lee the visualist makes the most out of the vibrancy of India, but really everyone is here to see a boy, a boat and a Bengal tiger.
It’s once we reach the big storm that the film really kicks off; the cargo liner’s destruction, when faced with the might of the sea, is one of the most impressive FX sequences of the year, and the crashing waves and the sharply dipping prow of the ship are nauseatingly immersive. Pi wakes up the next day on a lifeboat with his own little zoo to keep him company. The scene is set for days of survival and the building of a friendship with a creature that, the film is keen to emphasise, is definitely not human in any way. In spite of having the very human name ‘Richard Parker’, author Yann Martel and Lee are determined never to anthropomorphise this fearsome creature. It’s a case of man vs. nature, and nature in this case could kill man with just one swipe of his paw. Yet the astonishingly realised digital tiger, by remaining always a beast, becomes so utterly believable that you start to buy into this most ridiculous of stories. We invest in their relationship because the tiger never looks once looks at him lovingly, always remaining aloof, proud and terrifying.
Yet the film, like the book, is about far more than survival, and Lee seamlessly ties the themes of faith and the divine in with the narrative. Cinema has been concerned with matters of God almost since the medium began, and some of the great directors root their films in discussions of the divine. The Seventh Seal is surely the classic film about man’s walk with God, as a knight tackles big questions when faced with his imminent death. Carl Theodor Dreyer, the austere auteur responsible for The Passion of Joan of Arc gives Bergman a run for his money. But in an increasingly atheistic, or at the very least, secular and agnostic society, faith on film is often reduced to vague, unsatisfying questions that appeal to a post-modern, there-are-no-real-answers attitude. Prometheus is one of the worst incarnations of this, displaying a frustratingly lacklustre approach to ‘the big questions’, reducing it to a series of silly aphorisms as opposed to anything tangible. The second kind of representation of faith in modern cinema is the blinkered, narrow minded idiot played either for comic relief (the terrible Paul) or as a villain (The Mist is a great film, but features the archetypal mean Christian). So belief in God has, of late, been criminally under served by cinema, with very few directors prepared to take it seriously.
Life of Pi, therefore, is so refreshing in the frank way in which it approaches the themes and imagery of the book. In spite of the occasional moments of much needed irreverence – Pi says that the advantage of being both a Hindu and a Catholic is that he gets to be guilty in front of hundreds of Gods – Lee treats faith as vital and vibrant, yet not shying away from some of the contradictions that come with belief. It’s such an intelligent discourse on these important issues, made even more special by the fact that this approach is so rare in cinema. Not only that, but he matches these big, metaphysical themes with visuals that display the faith of the central character. Seas glowing with phosphorescence and unending horizons of orange and blue create landscapes that take on divine significance, a world of creator Gods that turn up in ferocious lightning storms. At the start of the film, the narrator implies that this story can make you believe in God, and it is a credit to Lee that, firstly, he doesn’t ridicule this idea and secondly he just about manages to make that rather grandiose statement seem real. It’s unlikely to win over Richard Dawkins, but the unjaded viewer will, at the very least, be provoked.
Sadly the ending of the book doesn’t translate terribly well onto film, and almost gives a way out to the cynics who are watching it. However, Life of Pi remains one of the most intelligent, engaging films about faith of the last decade. Add into the mix spectacular visuals, real warmth from the young lead actor and an island full of meerkats, and Life of Pi becomes both a superlative literary adaptation, and one of the best films of the year.