Spoilers Ahead! You have been warned…

This just seemed like a bad idea from the get-go. The Life of Pi is a book told in the first person chronicling the efforts of Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel, the sole human survivor of a shipwreck who finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a tiger. The book is comprised entirely of Pi’s musings, and his descriptions of how and more importantly why he went about the various tasks of survival. That’s right, folks, most everything of interest in the book is going on…inside the main character’s head. And this is an attempt to put that on film.

Ouch.

Films adapted from books featuring a first person narrator are really hard to do. The bit of exposition in The Hunger Games movie to explain tracker jackers still stings (sorry, I had to). Life of Pi tries to compensate by setting the whole movie within the frame of a middle aged Pi relating his story to a writer. It allows the older Pi to explain himself, much as the narrator did in the book.

But it’s also inelegant. The thing about the book is that the reader is able to sink into Pi’s point of view, to see the world from his eyes. This is simply not possible in film. In film we can be influenced by the perspective of a character, but the audience is always going to be an independent observer. We can’t see the action from Pi’s eyes, can’t know why he does everything he does unless he tells us.

So from the get-go we have almost a constant stream of narration, and frankly it’s obnoxious. I really don’t know what to else to say about it. It’s not poorly executed, it’s just not a great idea.

That’s a theme in this film. The level of execution is high throughout. The quality of conception is not.

And some of the changes from the book are baffling. For instance, in the book Pi manages to train the tiger (named Richard Parker) by using a sea anchor and a whistle, and he gradually builds up an association between sea sickness and the sound of the whistle. In the movie this is a failed attempt, and Pi succeeds by waving a stick in Richard Parker’s face. It’s stuff like this that I just don’t understand. The seasickness/whistle thing is brilliant, and moreover, it’s visual. It’s one of the few times we could’ve gotten inside Pi’s head through action alone – if we saw him figure out a way to train and coexist with the tiger, we’d understand how Pi is a smart, resourceful young man who understands animals because he’s been around them all his life.

On the subject of Richard Parker, there are two more things that bear mentioning. The first is that he looks great, as does most of the CGI in this film. This is a pretty film. Not oh-my-goodness-that’s-gorgeous pretty, but it’s nice to look at. A fair amount of the visuals are supersaturated with color and reflective of the sort of wonder of Pi’s incredible survival story. Actually, though, I didn’t think the film went quite far enough in this regard. The borderline hyper-real is mixed with some elements that are considerably more earthy and realistic. It’s sort of an odd marriage, and I think the film would have looked better if they’d actually pushed the sort of hyper-real visual style a little more.

But back to Richard Parker and the second thing that bears mentioning. The movie tries to reflect the books insistence that Richard Parker’s companionship was the only thing that kept Pi sane and alive. In the book this is believable because we see the coexistence of the two figures over a long period of time and through many trials. We see how they come to rely on one another, a mutual respect, a co-survival. In the movie they remain fairly adversarial for most of the film, and although we see Pi break down with and about Richard Parker very briefly, the main way we’re informed about the significance of their relationship is through – you guessed it – narration. Ugh. There’s an adage in writing that’s especially true in film: “Show, don’t tell.” Yet here once again, as happens incessantly through this film, we’re told more than we’re shown.

The Verdict: 2 out of 5

In film, the voice of a book’s narrator is replaced by what we see on camera as our point of entry into the world of the story. The trouble with adapting any book written in first person is that the world must now be explained through wholly different means. The book The Life of Pi gives particular trouble because it is a survival story, and the visible details of what happened are not nearly so interesting as what Pi thought about what was happening. This is a beautifully shot film, but  nowhere do the visuals explain what is going on in Pi’s head.

With the exception of a couple strange diversions from the story according to the book, the execution and production values on this film are very, very high. But this was just not a good idea from the beginning, and in the end the film is a disappointing shadow of its source material.

Oh, and if anyone can explain to me why Pi still looked perfectly clean shaven at the end of his ordeal you get a gold star.

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