I have a long history with Life of Pi. Still, I never knew that it would come back to be so important to me year after year. Or that it would demonstrate everything I wanted to say about storytelling and narrative style after watching Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby (2013)–see previous post here.
I came across this story first during my sophomore year of high school. I hated my English class that year, but I loved this book. It frustrated me to no end that my classmates couldn’t see the beauty of the novel, the masterful narrative that toyed with the readers’ beliefs, and the wonderful voice of Pi carrying the many themes through the book to the final, important question at its end: “Which story do you prefer?”
I heard that it was to be made into a film directed by Ang Lee when I met the man behind the novel, Yann Martel, when he came to sign copies of his second book at Austin’s Book People (support independent bookstores! they bring in wonderful writers to speak, like Yann Martel). He barely mentioned the movie, as if he didn’t take much interest in it. So I also didn’t wait with much apprehension for its premiere in theaters. I let the semester of its premiere slide by, funnily enough, spending more of my time and energy following the updates on the filming and release of Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby.
I didn’t think that Life of Pi could be made into a very good movie. It was too wonderful, too wide-reaching with its animals, sinking ships, floating islands, and Pi’s vibrant narration to be captured in film. In fact, that’s what the screenwriter, David Magee, thought after he’d read it, too. When I asked him in an Austin Film Festival sponsored Conversation about what books or stories he would not adapt for the screen, he said “Crappy ones,” and then added that he wouldn’t rule anything out after adapting Life of Pi. As long as someone like Ang Lee could believe in a project and develop their own vision of it, it could certainly be turned into a sort of reality. Listening to David Magee talk made me want to watch the film. After hearing his story, how he came to screenwriting by way of the theater and then abridging novels for audiobooks, I became interested in finally watching the film.
And in the end, I think all the challenges are what made this adaptation so much better and more satisfying than Luhrman’s Gatsby. The novel offered so many varying themes but the film knew that it had to limit itself down to one: storytelling. In the end, that’s where the power came from, from how each story was told in order to show off how important storytelling is to humanity. The way Ang Lee and David Magee wove scenes of the adult Pi telling his stor(ies) to a Canadian author through the entire film made sure that no one could forget this theme and its importance. It framed the film’s main action, the brilliance of the Pondicherry Zoo at the beginning and the wasted beauty of the shipwreck and the sea in the middle. It made Pi’s discovery of three different religions–Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam– and the way he grasped onto all three of them more compelling because he believed in them for the narratives of life, the stories that explained the universe that they offered him. In other words, Lee’s film succeeded in all the places that Luhrman’s failed because it stuck to this theme and wove it throughout.
From what I’ve heard of Luhrman’s process and the many companies he brought on to design the costumes and the jewelry and the soundtrack, he was more invested in how the final product would look. And that’s fine; it does that really, really well. But I prefer Lee’s method for Life of Pi: take a wonderful story, the biggest challenge of a popular, mammoth novel, and think about how you can tell the whole story through those stunning cinematography. What my family and I watched in his film was the best of both in narrative and visual style.
I can see why Ang Lee and David Magee were nominated for Oscars for their work on Life of Pi and why maybe it’ll be fine and the right decision by the Academy if Luhrman and his team receive different nominations.