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.