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Fearful symmetry

Ang Lee turns the seemingly impossible to adapt novel Life of Pi into a gorgeous, powerful wonder of a film

If you were one of the seemingly endless people reading Yan Martel’s Life of Pi on the subway during the first half of the last decade, it’s unlikely you thought to yourself “Wow, this would make a really good movie.” A largely philosophical book that spends the vast majority of its narrative with a boy and a tiger lost at sea in a lifeboat, it probably wasn’t that you didn’t think it would make a good movie, just that you felt it impossible to adapt.

But 10 years after the Canadian author’s novel won the Man Booker Prize for fiction and was propelled into an unexpected phenomenon of sorts, it is coming to theatres this month via Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee, some state of the art 3D technology, and about $100 million. (How many Canadian books have ever gotten that treatment?)

Martel himself was quite surprised it ended up happening. When the film made its world premiere in September at the New York Film Festival, he said he never thought it would become a film. “When I was writing it,” he said, “it was very cinematic in my mind because of the contrast of colours in the blue ocean and white life boat and the orange and black tiger. In my mind it was very cinematic, but even the most basic cinema guru can realize that to turn that story into a movie would be an enormous technical challenge. So, no, I didn’t imagine it. I never thought I would see it on the screen, I thought it would be too complicated.”

“Even the most basic cinema guru can realize that to turn that story into a movie would be an enormous technical challenge.”

Leave it to Ang Lee to pull it all off. Life of Pi is a gorgeous, powerful wonder of a film. Like the book (to which David Magee’s screenplay is generally quite faithful), it tells the story of a young Indian boy named Pi (Suraj Sharma, incredible in his debut role) who survives a shipwreck that kills the rest of his family, only to spend 227 days on a lifeboat with none other than a Bengal tiger (who is entirely CGI but, for once, you can never tell). Utilizing what is clearly some of the best technology available, Lee offers up epic visuals that more than warrant their third dimension and packs a serious emotional punch to boot.

The only time the film falters is when it jumps to the future, where an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his story to a character based on Martel himself (British actor Rafe Spall, offering up a serious attempt at a genuine Canadian accent). These scenes are set all around Montreal, evoking a strange sensation in anyone familiar with the city, as the film cuts from giant CGI blue whales to Khan and Spall sitting on a park bench in Montreal’s Old Port. It also feels like a lazy tactic to move the story along, and drags considerably in parts; you really just want to be taken back to the boy, the boat and the tiger.

But in the end, the film comes together effectively and leaves us with a rare example of a Hollywood studio-produced Ÿlm that utilizes visual effects and a whole lot of cash money for the art of worthwhile storytelling. Hopefully audiences will appreciate this in droves, giving Hollywood encouragement to keep up the good work.

LIFE OF PI Opens theatrically on Wed, Nov 21.