Life of Pi is a 2012 American adventure drama film based on Yann Martel‘s 2001 novel of the same name. Directed by Ang Lee, the film is based on an adapted screenplay by David Magee, and stars Irrfan Khan, Gérard Depardieu, Tabu, Suraj Sharma, and Adil Hussain. Visual effects are by Rhythm & Hues Studios.
Pi Patel, an immigrant from India living in Canada, is approached by a local novelist who has been referred to him by his “uncle” (a family friend), believing that Pi’s life story would make a great book. Pi relates an extended tale:
He is named “Piscine Molitor” by his parents after a swimming pool in France. He changes his name to “Pi” when he begins secondary school, because he is tired of being taunted with the nickname “Pissing Patel”. His family owns a local zoo, and Pi takes a curious interest in the animals, especially a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (after a clerical error); to teach him the reality of the tiger’s nature as a carnivore, Pi’s father forces him to witness it killing a goat. He is raised Hindu and vegetarian, but at 12 years old, he is introduced to Christianity and then Islam, and starts to follow all three religions (when asked as an adult if he is also Jewish, he replies that he lectures in Kabbalah at the university).
When he is 16 (and experiencing first love), his father decides to close the zoo, and move to Canada due to political concerns in India. They book passage for themselves and their animals (to be sold in North America) on a Japanese freighter named the Tsimtsum. The ship encounters a heavy storm and begins to sink while Pi is on deck marveling at it. He tries to find his family, but is thrown overboard with a lifeboat, and watches helplessly as the ship sinks, killing his family and its crew.
After the storm, Pi finds himself in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, and is joined by an orangutan who lost her child in the shipwreck. A hyena emerges from the tarp covering half of the boat, and before long begins to eat the injured zebra, killing it. To Pi’s distress, the hyena also mortally wounds the orangutan in a fight. Suddenly Richard Parker emerges from under the tarp, and kills the hyena.
Pi finds emergency food and water rations on the boat, and builds a small raft of floatation devices for him to stay at a safe distance from Richard Parker. Realizing that he must feed the tiger to protect himself, Pi begins fishing, with some success. He also collects rain water for both to drink, and helps a desperate Richard Parker climb back into the boat after the cat leaves it to hunt fish. In a nighttime encounter with a breaching whale, Pi loses much of his supplies, and faced with starvation eats fish himself. After many days at sea Pi realizes that he can no longer live on the tiny raft and trains Richard Parker to accept him in the boat. He also realizes that caring for the tiger is keeping him alive.
After weeks longer at sea, they reach a floating island of edible algae supporting a forest, fresh water, and a large population of meerkats, enabling both Pi and Richard Parker to eat and drink freely and regain strength. But at night the island transforms into a hostile environment, with the fresh water turning acidic. Pi finds a human tooth inside a plant and concludes that the plants are carnivorous, requiring them to leave the island.
The lifeboat eventually reaches the coast of Mexico. Finally back on land, Richard Parker walks into the jungle without even looking back at Pi to “say goodbye”. Pi is taken to a hospital, where insurance agents for the Japanese freighter come to hear his account of the incident. They find his story unbelievable, and ask him to tell them what “really” happened, if only for the credibility of their report. He answers with a less fantastic but detailed account of sharing the lifeboat with his mother, a sailor with a broken leg, and the ship’s cook. In this story, the cook kills the sailor, and then Pi’s mother, to use them as bait and food. Pi then kills the cook in revenge.
In the present, the writer notes parallels between the two stories: the orangutan was Pi’s mother, the zebra was the sailor, the hyena was the cook, and Richard Parker, the tiger, was Pi himself. Pi asks him which story he prefers; he chooses the story with the tiger. Glancing at a copy of the insurance report, the writer notices a closing comment about the remarkable feat of surviving 227 days at sea… especially with a tiger; the agents chose that story as well.
Life of Pi was visually stunning and very very good. It had a slow start and seemed as if the film makers were trying to prepare American audiences for the Indian religion and culture of the main character. In the novel by Yann Martel, these aspects were less obvious, but still prevalent to the “seeking God” aspects of the plot.
An interesting note: The novel was rejected by at least five London publishing houses before being accepted by Knopf Canada, which published it in September 2001. This just goes to prove again how literary publishers have no idea what is really great.
I found that after the story really starts, when Pi and Richard Parker are on the boat lost at sea, the fantastic takes over and we are taken into a world of incredible scope, where nothing is impossible.
I give Life of Pi 4 stars and highly recommend it. It is visually stunning and has fantastic imagery. — MR