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Home » Culture and Criticism

Life of Pi: Let’s hope this kitchen sink floats

Submitted by on January 17, 2013 – 10:43 AM25 Comments


A teenage boy named Pi, shipwrecked on his way from India to Quebec with his family and their zoo animals, spends more than half a year at sea, “sharing” a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. As you do.

I haven’t read the book; I suspect I’d find it insufferable. The various chapters of the film have a fairytale quality I enjoyed — the flying fish; Richard Parker’s vision — but that comes in large part from the visuals. If I’d had to supply the optics from my own imagination, I’d have tired of it quickly.

And a lot of it is tiresome, because there’s too much. The main story, the flashback to Pi’s incredible floating journey, is tricky enough to sustain, but to that is added the cutesy story of Pi’s name; the story of the tiger’s name (one, please; not both); a pan-religious quest that, while attuned to how children process that particular big question, is at the same time reminiscent of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Condescending, and therefore a mannered irritant; and a carnivorous floating island populated solely by meerkats. The island is meant to cast doubt on Pi’s version of events, but casts somewhat more on Yann Martel’s ability to self-edit.

The meerkat segment drew my attention to the CGI in a negative way; beyond that, it seemed competent enough to me, and in any case, in an explicitly Campbellian hero’s-labors myth of this sort, you almost want imperfections. It’s like a cave drawing — that they don’t really look like buffalo is in a way their greatest beauty. Life of Pi as a story in general doesn’t quite realize that. It tries heroically hard, framing device here, zebras pinwheeling underwater there, but it’s at its best when it just listens to how a real person would be in the circumstances. “What are you looking at?” Pi asks as Richard Parker peers over the side of the boat. “Talk to me. Tell me what you see.” The seven-pound self-styled Charlotte Bronson next to me on the couch spent the movie chirring at Richard Parker; how many times have I asked her those questions?

Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan, as Flashback Pi and Present-Day Pi respectively, do wonderfully with a great deal of telling over showing, particularly Khan, who’s saddled with a crappy scene partner in Rafe Spalls. I recall liking Spalls well enough in Anonymous; he’s inert here, to the point where I wondered if he was a last-minute substitution or something. He’s bad, but in a tentative way that suggests a lack of preparation or proper direction. Weird, unfortunate performance.

But it moves right along; whenever you’re about to mutter “enough already” or “swallow that bug and act the line,” it’s on to the next thing. It has problems, but it’s thought-provoking at the least, and it’s a worthwhile sit.




  • Cora says:

    I did read the book, back in 2003, left feeling completely ambivalent. It bothers me, though, that when Mychael Danna accepted his award, he never thanked the writer. If the film wins any Oscars, I’ll be interested if it occurs to anyone to mention Yann Martel.

  • Paul F says:

    I didn’t hate the book, but I thought it felt far too pleased with itself and how clever it was. I wasn’t planning on watching the movie, but I like Ang Lee, and I’ve heard good things about the visuals.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    …Turns out Spall WAS a replacement for Tobey Maguire, and all those scenes had to be reshot. The reason, evidently, is that Maguire’s “star power” was dwarfing Khan’s performance, which I find hard to believe, but that might explain why Spall looks so overmatched.

  • MsC says:

    I read the book years ago. I got it from the library, tried to read it, had an instant ‘ugh’ reaction, and returned it. Then I had a lot of people promise me it was really brilliant so I tried it again…


    I am going to try to explain this….. I know that fiction is fiction, and that novels are not real in the first place. But when I read something like Atonement or Life of Pi where when you get to the end of the story, and the narrator is all ‘yeah, that last 400 pages totes didn’t happen!’ it bugs the bejeezus out of me. I mean, I know the last 400 pages didn’t happen, because it’s a NOVEL. Therefore, I can’t explain why it makes my blood boil so much, but I am always just left thinking ‘what was the point’ if the characters in your story aren’t even… in your story? It’s like the ‘It was all a dream’ episode of a television series. So, yeah, I will not being seeing the movie.

  • Kara says:

    I did read the book and utterly LOVED it right up until the thing that happens at the end that explains the metaphor. I was tempted to burn it after that, I felt so physically sick at that change (nb. I had recently suffered a pretty devastating loss and the similarity stun. I didn’t burn it b/c Duh. I may have thrown it across the room.) But man, I am NOT seeing that movie.

  • Meagen Voss says:

    I recall enjoying the book, though the part I remember best is the beginning. Pi’s intertwining religious beliefs intrigued me. The actual adventure was “meh” and I don’t remember anything that happened while he was in the boat.

    The movie looked like it was trying to hard, so if I decide it’s worth my money to watch it, I’ll wait until it’s available in Red Box.

    @MsC, I think Martel was attempting to leave it up to the reader to decide which version of the story they wanted to believe. Whether it worked or not, I think, largely depended on the reader and their degree of tolerance for such literary shenanigans. I agree that sort of ending can be quite annoying.

  • Elissa says:

    All right I’ll weigh in with some praise for the book: I actually really enjoyed it when I read it back in the day. But I remember seeing that they were going to make it into a movie and thinking, ‘how exactly are they going to do that?’ The book isn’t literal ( … you know what I mean). So a movie seemed like a weird, bad idea. Of course I am one of those curmudgeons who prefers her most beloved books stay books, so. Biased.

  • Linda says:

    Ugh, the book is a drag. Such an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation, where people go around claiming it is their favorite book and I cannot believe that. I’m with Kara–the ending ruined it. And…spoiler? To me seemed on par with how we all ended short stories in 5th grade…”And then I woke up!” or whatever.

  • Seankgallagher says:

    I didn’t like the novel because I figured out the twist at the end, and I found the prose to be somewhat purple, and not in a good way. I can see how the visuals would make up for that, and I like Ang Lee, so one day, I’ll catch up to this.

  • ferretrick says:

    I’m reading Atonement currently. :(

    So does this mean an Oscar Death Race 2013? Pretty please? You know you want to watch Anne Hathaway’s teeth get ripped out with 19th century tools.

  • Yoshi says:

    Here’s a weird one: I read the book back when it first came out and I remember liking it, enough that I recommended it to my mother and gave her my copy. A couple of weeks ago, though, my girlfriend got the audiobook and as we talked about it I realised that I remembered absolutely nothing of the book, apart from ‘boy lost at sea with tiger’. I remembered none of the details of the accident, none of the other animals, none of the backstory, not even the ending. NOTHING. It finally occurred to me that if someone had asked me if he had survived and made it to land, my best answer would have been ‘…I think so?’

    I realise that it’s been 10 years or more since I read it, and people forget things. And if I had hated the book, or been ambivalent, I could understand having lost it from my head like that. But for me to blank that hard on a book I enjoyed? I don’t think that that’s ever happened to me before. My girlfriend doesn’t believe that I actually did read it, and to be honest, if I didn’t have the hard proof of the book that has been sitting on my mother’s dresser lo these many years, I wouldn’t believe it myself. Bizarre.

  • Nancy says:

    Spoiler….The ending doesn’t say that the rest of the book didn’t happen. He just gives you a choice to either believe his miraculous tale or choose something else more horrible and more “believable” to our everyday experience. He is saying that we all have a choice about what we believe and we can choose to believe in the miraculous if we want to.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    No ODR this year, or — unless I get paid full-time wages for it — ever again. I’ll do the Best Picture Leisurely Amble; that’s it.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    …but if anyone else around here is doing it, I can open a thread for everyone to compare notes. I have no desire to do it again but I can certainly advise/console.

    (Also, 4/62 with five weeks to go? Yeah: no.)

  • Isabel C. says:

    Count me in the camp of hating that particular plot structure. (See also: That One Episode of Buffy S6. And the guy on Usenet being all “…but it’s never real to begin with, because it’s all fiction, and I am So Very Very Meta and Smart” can bite me, and then he can go soak his head, except in reverse order and the head-soaking should be in Clorox. Hate that guy.)

    The way I explain it is this: when I read, I choose to get invested in whatever the work is presenting, *as* it’s being presented. While I can deal with some twists, like the Sixth Sense, changing the entire structure of the fictional world at the very end annoys me, because I got into the story that you made me believe was going on, and now it isn’t, and yes, you’re very clever*, now fuck very much off.

    I hate the Scooby-Doo plot–“it looks like magic, but it’s really Old Man Withers in a mask”–for similar reasons.

    *Except not, because: Owl Creek Bridge, St. Elsewhere, Dallas, etc.

  • Bo says:

    MsC, that’s how I felt about the book and it leaves me with no desire to see the movie.

    My reading the book at all was the result of years of people (many different people) telling me I HAD to read it because it was SO GREAT, even though I really didn’t think it was going to be. I got caught up a little in the beginning, horribly bored in the middle, and was disgusted in the end, feeling I’d wasted a lot of time on a practical joke.

  • anotherkate says:

    Hmm, I guess I’m one of the few who enjoyed it, although I read it only once and it was a few years ago now. However, I’ve read fantasy novels since I could read at all, and I actually like philosophy so the ending being more of an allegory for how we choose to deal with trauma and grief was fine for me. I feel like I should reread it to see if it’s held up. I will probably never see the movie since I feel like making the animals real totally kills the point of the story.

  • Rachel says:

    I am doing the ODR this year! I had fun with it last year (although I was about 20 films away from finishing), and it turns out I only have 38 to see this time around (and 15 of those are shorts), so I figured, why not? Although, in answer to that question, I can now say that the animation nominees were not great.

  • JenV says:

    True story: I discovered a while back that the fridge in my apartment is missing a leg; instead it is being held up by two books. The books are Life of Pi, and Eat, Pray, Love. Of the latter, I can only say that this might be the only actually useful purpose this book has ever served. As for Life of Pi, I very briefly considered the trouble it would take to remove the book and replace it with something else without displacing the entire contents of my fridge, but decided I really didn’t want to read it that much.

  • John says:

    I loved the book. I’m surprised that many people here assume that the story Pi tells the insurance people at the end one is the “true” one. He describes it himself as an invention, just another story. Like the cause of the destruction of the ship, you never know for sure. The handling of the god stuff is a bit more nuanced in the novel, if I remember right. Ang Lee bonks it a little at the end of the movie.

    My own thought upon hearing the book was being made into a movie was to wonder how they could pull it off, but I thought Ang Lee hit the tone of it well. And it was visually gorgeous.

  • Jeanne says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I loved the movie. The visuals are outstanding and it’s the best use of 3D since Avatar. The end didn’t really bother me, those kinds of endings rarely do.

  • Laura says:

    I’m with Nancy. The ending of the book made me want to sit back and applaud.

  • Jaybird says:

    I enjoyed the book until the ending, which was just cheating. That’s really what it comes down to, right there: The whole story becomes an obnoxious practical joke with no real payoff. I even enjoyed the cinematography-by-Maxfield-Parrish look of the movie’s trailer. But I’m pretty sure the movie would make me feel as though I were chewing tinfoil, or that it would make me feel as though chewing tinfoil would be more fun than sitting in that theater. Thank you, but no.

  • Erin W says:

    I loved the book, myself, but I have a high tolerance for “trick” endings. It was psychologically and emotionally appropriate to the story; it impressed me as a denouement.

    I thought the movie, much like the book, dragged excessively until he got into the boat. Once he was there, I enjoyed it quite a bit, not the least because it was beautiful to look at every second. It even made me think that 3D is not the biggest scam ever perpetrated upon the American public.

    Also, I read that Tobey Maguire backed out because he considered himself a distraction in the role. I don’t think it was necessarily performance-based, but rather that he decided late in the game that the movie shouldn’t be “the new Tobey Maguire movie.” I don’t think of him as a huge star, but I could see him being forced to make the rounds of the talk shows and having to admit each time that he’s only the fourth most important character in the show (first three being young Pi, old Pi, tiger). Maybe his ego didn’t like it; maybe he legitimately wanted not to overshadow the story.

  • amy b says:

    I also enjoyed the book. As noted above, the ending didn’t exactly negate the entire prior contents of the story – it was more about “choosing” how you look at things, and also tied in with the character’s exploration of the various religions at the beginning of the book, and the idea that perhaps the “myth” of these belief systems is the human attempt to deal with the cruel reality of life (or, at least, that was how I understood it).

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