Life of Pi Movie: Ang Lee Visual Splendor Will Not Live Up to the Book


There’s been a lot of buzz about the visual splendor of Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, Life of Pi. I found the trailer impressive and intriguing, but I don’t plan to see the movie. Here’s why:

The novel is all about the internal life. Some of the emotional elements, the fear, hopelessness, and wonder, could potentially be translated to film with good acting and music. What can’t is the meditative state that the reader is propelled to along with Pi, which is the element of the book that left the deepest impression on me as a reader. 

Most of the story takes place with Pi lost at sea, alone on a boat with a Bengal tiger. Obviously there’s very little dialogue; the story is about Pi’s internal struggles, his discovery of his own fortitude and ability to finding peace in even this terrifying and strenuous situation. Being lost at sea, isolated from the rest of humanity, is a pretty blatant metaphor for turning inward and developing the power of the mind.

Through his wonderful and descriptive writing, Martel brings the reader to a lesser degree of the same kind of mental calm that Pi finds. Reading about what Pi goes through, and creating mental images of the strange island he discovers, the sea turtles he catches, and the endless days and nights, cycling unchecked, the reader, too, goes inward and gains distance from the external world.

That’s something that just can’t be replicated with film — no matter how stunning it is. Creating the images and projecting them on a screen to be passively consumed is a far cry from testing the abilities of the human mind by provoking it to conjure its own images of these phenomenal things.

In general, I prefer books to movies for this same reason — I don’t like to see movies based on books that I love because they obscure the images I’ve come up with for what characters or landscapes look like. I know that not everyone feels this way, and I know that film has its own unique advantages as a form of expression. But given the subject matter of this book and its utility as a tool for internal examination and even meditation, it just seems inappropriate and futile to attempt to translate it to film, a more external medium by nature.

Watch the trailer: 

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But for the full experience, buy the book instead.