I’ll admit it: more often than not, I’m a sucker for extremely popular novels, and I loved Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi. I was passionate Cloud Atlas in an almost unseemly way, too, and I sobbed like a melancholic Victorian housewife at the end of The Kite Runner. But all three books have struggled to be translated successfully to the screen despite being handled by some of Hollywood’s most adept directors. That might be due to higher-than-usual expectations because of how I felt for the books, but I doubt it. I have wanted nothing more than these films to put the awesome back in awesomeness, and have forgiven them more than they deserved as a result.
I was particularly impressed with Life of Pi the book because it was written by a gora and I, James Killough, host of the 1993 Miss India Pageant, am one of those goras who feels he owns India, or at least huge swaths of it, and we are a jealous, proprietary lot. “You know more about my country than I do!” is a common phrase I’ll hear from an Indian I’ve just met. Two desi writers, Salam Rushdie and Shashi Tharoor (The Great Indian Novel), have been unwitting mentors for my own work. When I bust out truly whimsical lyrical Americanized Hobson-Jobson mala garlands of neologized sentences, that is purely their influence. So Martel didn’t have my permission to write his book, and I fought him tigerly for encroaching on my territory at first, but by the time I put it down, he had won his right to his India fair and square.
I also think Ang Lee ranks in the top ten directors working today. Relatively speaking, he gets to do what he wants in an industry where you seldom get to do what you want, or not what you set out to do, at least. Therefore, you would think that the equation of worthy book plus strong director would equal amazing film, but like Cloud Atlas and The Kite Runner before it, Life of Pi disappoints far more than it impresses.
I would like to say the failure is because it’s so difficult to adapt a complex novel to the screen that it shouldn’t even be attempted. But Life of Pi the book is too slender in terms of plot—it should have been straightforward for screenwriter David Magee. At the very least it should have been on a dramatic par with Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away starring Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball.
Indeed, Life of Pi the movie’s list of weaknesses begin with a tepid script; however, ironically it is the script that is probably saving the film at the box office. As of this writing, the film is over performing in the States, and I’m pretty sure that’s in part due to the pantheistic elements that Magee has chosen to highlight, which are tapping directly into the new American religious/spiritual belief of a higher power tailor made for personal tastes. In other words, this could be renamed The Passion of Pi; otherwise, I have no explanation for why this gorgeous-but-soppy slice of milquetoast got an A- from Cinemascore, which measures audience reaction as they exit the theater.
From the first scenes of the zoo in Pondicherry, a town in south India I have a particular fondness for because it’s so charming and different from the rest of the subcontinent in Albert Camus way, I willed Life of Pi to be great. I had the seat of honor to the right of my precocious seven-year-old niece, Uma, who is half Indian—her father, one of my best friends in India, married my sister. Her grandfather was the co-producer on the first film I wrote to go into production, which was shot in Kashmir. I thought this would make us all go, “Awwww,” in wistful reminiscence. It did, a little, but that longing for the Old India faded shortly after the title sequence.
I don’t know why the script ended up so wobbly when the basis for it is so strong and simple. My semi-educated guess is it was so battered around by opinions at the studio that it suffered brain damage following a prolonged high fever of second-guessing; after all, the production budget on this is a declared one hundred twenty million, which can cause fevers to run at meningitis levels, understandably. Even a director of Ang Lee’s stature has to make relentless concessions to the execs and their minions. On a film like Brokeback Mountain, which had a mid-range budget, he would have maintained greater control over the content, and the result was that much stronger. Even if the weak script is indeed the studio’s fault, that’s still no excuse; whatever the budget, it is a mistake to separate the director from absolute control over the skeletal structure of a film. That’s like steering a ship through a perfect storm by committee.
The next-biggest mistake, and this must be Lee’s fault, was to shoot it ‘S.A.S.,’ as I call it, or ‘sharp as shit.’ Perhaps this was due to the exigencies of 3D—I’m not at all familiar with the format—but even that was unnecessary: this is about a teen and a tiger on a lifeboat, not a battle of superheroes versus supervillains with projectile whatsits relentlessly flying at you. Because the image was so crisp, I was acutely aware most of the time that the tiger was CGI; by his own admission, lead actor Suraj Sharma, who acquits himself decently for a non-pro, never came face to face with any of the four tigers they used for the few scenes that weren’t CGI the entire shoot. He says he studied them in their cages. And it shows.
Had Life of Pi been shot in a grittier, more turgid, realistic fashion—like Cast Away, for instance—the viewer would buy into it more. Even if I discount that most people watching Pi aren’t, like me, automatically scouring every pixel of the frame, I am positive that the overall identification with the action and the boy’s circumstances would have been vastly improved, and that in turn would have enhanced the dramatic impact. As it is, I felt I was watching some lame motion-capture animation project by, yes, Robert Zemeckis himself.
The third great flaw is the ending, the coda that was the shocking twist in the book. [Spoiler alert here, big one.) Did Pi hallucinate the whole thing to cover up the gruesome reality? Rather than cut away from the hero in his hospital bed, where he is being interviewed by Japanese insurance adjusters, and visually recreate the more plausible scenario—that the animals with whom Pi was stranded on the boat represented human passengers, his mother included—Lee (or the studio) keeps the camera focused on Sharma. It would have been far more effective had it been his voice over the humans turning into animals and slaughtering each other. Worse, the camera pushes in from wide to close up, a move that as a filmmaker I’m so allergic to it makes my brain sneeze. I suspect that the recreation of the more plausible drama might have been shot, but left out of the final cut. Too gruesome for a PG-13 Thanksgiving-weekend rating? This would also explain why Gerard Depardieu has a title credit when he only appears in a single brief scene aboard the ship. Had he been the hyena in the recreated scenes, then his role would have been expanded considerably.
Niece Uma’s reaction as she stood up at the end summed it up pretty well: “I thought this was going to be a movie about the life of a pie.”
“Pecan or pumpkin?” I asked her, as other unimpressed audience members around us tittered in agreement with her.
“Ummmm…” she replied. And that was it.
Sadly, Life of Pi is a pie of indeterminate type, one that has been baked by too many cooks, in my opinion. Either that or Ang Lee has misfired, which he has done a couple of times in the past, especially when he is working with excessive amounts of CGI, as in the case of Hulk. Too much post-production seems to exhaust his focus; in-camera filmmaking plays much more to his strengths.
Life of Pi is a colossal, admirable effort on many levels, and I would lean towards giving this a Nice just for that if I weren’t so sure that Lee could have done better had different decisions been made of the kind that are only in line with his normal shooting style. For who he is, and for what might well be too much studio interference, I’m awarding it a: