Life of Pi: Film versus Novel

You like movies, don’t you? Sure, we all do. I’ve watched a lot of movies the last few months and learned a lot about films, film making, and film directors. Much of what I’ve learned about ‘the movies’ helps me appreciate them. But I’m also more troubled by the gap between my expectations of a movie and a director’s responsibility to turn it into cash.

In Tacoma, Washington, I watch films shown by the Tacoma Film Club. I see some good ones and enjoy our monthly meetings where films linked by a common theme are discussed. I also just completed a class about Scandinavian Film and Television which opened me to the world of Carl Dryer, Ingmar Bergman and other talents from those north countries. One big difference I learned is that movies made in the United States are typically made based upon a story in a book; in Scandinavia films are frequently about emotions and psychological challenges of actors in various settings. That may explain why they are often called ‘dark.’

This weekend, through a quirk in circumstances, I watched director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yan Martel’s novel Life of Pi three times. Any time you see a film back to back to back, you will notice aspects of the movie that may cause you to ask questions. I do, anyway. Life of Pi is a successful and very enjoyable movie. It grossed $154 million, so there’s a fair chance you too have seen it. Yet it began to nag at me.

I discussed Pi with one woman who said, “After seeing the movie, I don’t think I need to read the book.” That stopped me cold and I pleaded with her to read the book that I myself had not yet read. ‘Yes, you do need to read the book.”I said. And it’s not because of J.W. Eagan’s quip “Never judge the book by its movie.” It’s more than that.

Would you read the Cliff’s Notes for Moby Dick, but never read the novel? If the white whale comes out of Hollywood as a movie, will you think you’ve read Melville? To rely upon the movie, you lose the experience of the author’s imagination and your own. To get both, you must read read the book. To watch the To Kill a Mockingbird movie and never read Harper Lee’s novel I would consider tragic. If you think of Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It and hear Brad Pitt’s voice you have been robbed. And if the movie adaptation of Steven King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption doesn’t send you to the public library for the novella, know that you’ve been cheated.

Some movies were created for the camera. Of the Scandinavian films I’ve watched, Bergman’s Persona, for example, is a screenplay written to be a movie. Or consider Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. These too were created to be films. But to skip a book because of its movies is an awful mistake. I believe it is best to read a book before seeing its movie because the movie in your mind is more vivid than anything a director can put before you. Read the book first, if you can, but by all means, read the book.

For me and Life of Pi it is too late. I watched the movie to prepare for my movie group’s discussion. And now, as I finish reading the book I am plagued by the ear worm of voices of the actors who played Pi Patel in the movie.

Before reading Pi, I watched an interview with Ang Lee and thought to myself, “I think I can trust this guy with his adaptation of this book into a film.” Surely, he of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain would bring something special to the film. Upon reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi after seeing the film, I feel lied to and betrayed. Silly me. Lee did what directors do and made a popular movie that entertained audiences and rewarded its corporate investors. He did his job and made what some call a family movie and it won awards. That is how a wonderful, graphic book can appear as a movie without a drop of blood in it.

Not a drop of blood? The novel Life of Pi has a zebra that is killed by a hyena, eaten while still alive, actually, while blood ‘poured forth like a river.’ Slippery viscera covered the floor of the life boat and for days the smell of rotting animal flesh filled the air. In the movie Life of Pi, when the tiger Richard Parker then attacks and eats the hyena, he doesn’t even take a bite. It just disappears. No ripping and chewing. Nothing. It looks like a camera goof, but mostly its about making the movie inoffensive and good for a family. I don’t lust for gratuitous violence, but there is a violence that is essential to Pi’s story and it was removed. The movie is less because of that.

Ang Lee is not the first or last major director to make a movie to ‘pay the mortgage.’ Fracis Ford Coppola did the studio’s bidding in The Godfather and other popular movies he made. But I prefer how he followed his own muse to make Apocalypse Now. While I have questions about what Ang Lee did with his movie, it was his movie to make. I was dazzled by the cinematography and computer graphics in Pi. I even liked the story. Whether you’ve seen the movie Life of Pi or not; please read the book. You’ll be glad you did.

3 thoughts on “Life of Pi: Film versus Novel

  1. I don’t disagree with your assessment that there is much detail in the book, including some descriptions of blood and gore that are unsettling, that did not make it into the film. However, I would defend the choices Ang Lee made while adapting this novel to the screen. Lets start out by acknowledging that whenever a filmmaker tries to adapt a novel to the screen, some compromises are necessary. Unless one is going to make a 5+ hour film that no one would watch, the plot has to be streamlined, shortcuts taken, subplots eliminated, etc. So the criterion I use when judging whether or not a film adaptation is successful is not whether some details got left out, but rather whether the details that are left in allow the film to capture the “essence” of the novel. In my judgment, the film version of Life of Pi accomplished that goal.

    My assessment of the plot in the book would be something along the lines:
    1. Pi grows up until the age of 16 in India.
    2. Pi travels on a boat with his family towards Canada.
    3. The boat sinks and Pi ends up on a lifeboat. Some horrific events happen while on the lifeboat, but Pi eventually survives. The rest of the passengers on the boat, including Pi’s family does not.
    4. Sometime while on the lifeboat Pi develops Dissociated Identity Disorder as a means of coping with some horrific events he experienced.
    5. As Pi grew older he constructed a memory of what had happened to him. His memory is not necessarily objectively accurate, and may include elements that derive from his Dissociated Identity Disorder as well as other distortions of events that serve the purpose of allowing Pi to give meaning to his life.
    6. Pi recounts a narrative of his memory of what had happened to him as a child to a writer.
    7. The writer listens to this narrative and also does other research about what happened, and then (implicitly) writes a book called Life of Pi.

    The book includes some details about all 7 of these plot elements. The film maintains the essence of what happens (with some amount of streamlining) in all of these except #3. The film provides a few suggestions about what happens during #3 that can be picked up by a discerning viewer, but leaves out the unsettling gory details, some of which are described or alluded to in more detail in the book.

    No doubt there are other ways a filmmaker might have chosen to streamline the plot and still maintain the essence of the story. Perhaps others will attempt to make a film about the same novel later and we can judge whether or not some other way of streamlining works better. But until I see that evidence, my judgment is that the way Ang Lee chose to do it seems pretty good to me.

    I suppose there might be a crude analogy to the adage about the difference between appreciating sausage and seeing how it is made. By truncating step #3 above, Ang Lee deprived us of the opportunity of seeing all the details about how the sausage (Pi’s memory narrative) was created. Nevertheless, he let us taste the sausage, and I found it to be pretty tasty, even without being exposed to all of the details about how it was made.

  2. Arguments about the value of allegorical versus realistic approaches to describing disturbing topics have a long history. I recently ran across a a very old quote from Pierre de Ronsard (b 1524; d 1585), a French poet who was influential in the emergence of artistic expression during The Renaissance. In an essay addressed to fellow poets he urges them to:

    “Dissemble and conceal fables thickly and disguise well the truth of things with a fabulous cloak so as to make entry into the minds of ordinary people by agreeable and colorful fables the secrets, which they could not understand when the truth is too openly disclosed.”

  3. Ron, Most writers work hard enough at writing well that the idea of concealing and disguising the truth of things is contrary to the very purpose of good writing. I acknowledge that there are times and places where circumstance required subterfuge, but such an approach has little place in most of today’s world. Most, I say, because I too would likely use a fabulous cloak if I were a writer in North Korea or some such place. I do allegory has less to do with disturbing topics than it does the disturbing things that may happen to writers who say things that power does not want to hear.

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