The Life of Pi – Lost or Found in Translation?

As they are very different media, adaptation from novel to film is often fitting a square peg to a round hole. But there’s also a chance to review the novel and better it. Arguably this occurred with Ang Lee’s 2005 adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, where necessary flesh was hung on Proulx’s sparse but intense coat hanger.

With imaginative words, a novel creates a whole world. A film must create a credible visual representation of that world. The Life of Pi’s reliance on a believable tiger posed the films greatest problem and weakness. For the necessary computer graphics to be developed and executed, a heap of money had to be spent. And this life-like animation was achieved, creating empathetic and credible interactions between Pi and the other animals. But as a result of all that money, a whole heap of paying people had to be dragged into cinemas. I came away from the film feeling many things in the novel had been turned up to 11 to attract a crowd.

There are many instances where the film adheres to the novel (the presence of the “author” within the text) but there are some where it diverges considerably and perhaps these are more interesting.

After the shipwreck, Pi gathers himself together on the lifeboat. In the novel, he welcomes the tiger on board from a floating raft, only at the last second realising this act was close to suicide. In the film, as he settles to life with the broken Zebra, the appearing and disappearing Hyena and the arrival of the Orangutan, he doesn’t know the tiger is on board until he lunges forward from the tarpaulin lair and attacks the out-of-control hyena. Clearly, the dramatic tension of the tiger’s jaws flying in 3D at the hyena (and the audience) was much more dramatic than the novel. Take the tension higher is – is the maxim of every editor. In this instance David Magee, the screen writer, and Lee’s direction had done what Martel had not. Or had they…

The week before we’d seen The Hobbit, another high-cost adaptation and animation. In the tedious half hour of advertising before it started, we were shown the trailer for The Life of Pi. And there it was, the shot where Pi lifts up the corner of the tarpaulin and the tiger snarls at him.

From the moment Pi was on the boat, I knew the tiger was there. All the tension the writer and director had laboured to create was gone, blown apart by the need to advertise the film.

And the shock of the 3D jaws of a tiger coming at the hyena was really something of a wet fart. It reminded me of the 3D Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) where a heart was pushed out of a chest and hung in front of my face. How twee, forty years on beating the same dramatic trope.

I did enjoy the film’s spiritual journey. When the cinema lights went up I was in tears but was left feeling manipulated, not so much by the emotional content of the film but by the film’s meta-text. This film cost $120 million to make, slated as an impossible novel to take to film. I was left wondering what the 3D effect had added to the film. To my eyes, it doesn’t really look like 3D – it looks like flat panels arranged in a diorama. Largely, we went to see the film at the cinema because of the added thrill of the 3D effects but I felt it added nothing. In fact, I resented having to remove the glasses repeatedly to wipe my eyes clear of tears.

As we made our way to the multiplex car park, I felt conned. It was a bit like going to McDonalds and being offered the up-sizing or add-ons – would you like 3D with that? That’s another $5. I would have enjoyed the film more at home in daggy 2D with a bottle of wine, a box of tissues, some solitude and the dog. But the producers had to get me to a cinema with the added sugary thrill of 3D. And I fell for it.

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