Life of Pi (2012): The Magical 3D Experience

Movies this fall is a bumper crop of film adaptations from literary sources. Two belong to the same genre of magic realism. While Midnight’s Children is more akin to realism, Life of Pi is pure magic.

Ang Lee has done it, filming what is considered the ‘unfilmable’. Canadian author Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi is an existential fantasy, a story that challenges the limitations of human reasoning and opens the door to the imaginary and the quest for the Transcendent. What Martel has succeeded in literary form, Lee has realized in this visually stunning cinematic offering. While I know book and film are two very different art forms, I am glad that screenwriter David Magee has stayed true to the spirit of the novel, which I think is crucial in this case. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s creative camera work is also essential in turning Martel’s imaginary world into mesmerizing visuals on screen.

The difficulties are not just transposing the philosophical ruminations from book to screen, but to keep the audience’s attention and interest for two hours when the bulk of the story is about a 16 year-old boy adrift at sea for 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Kudos to Lee for taking up this daunting task, a project of which several other directors had bowed out, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), and Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

The production has taken Lee years to complete. He had to build the world’s largest self-generating water tank of its kind in Taiwan to shoot his film, utilize 3D technology and CGI to overcome many obstacles, do extensive research, and above all, find an actor who is capable to be Pi.

Ultimately Lee found 17 year-old Suraj Sharma in Delhi, India, from 3,000 candidates. Fate has it that Sharma was just accompanying his younger brother to the audition. The next set of challenges for Lee soon follows: directing Sharma who has never acted before, and, coaching him to imagine there is a fierce tiger present at the scenes, for Richard Parker is a virtual reality.

As I watched the film, I could see Lee’s own tenacity reflected in the character of Pi. In fact, the whole process of the production parallels the thematic significance of the story: the essence of reality, the nature of storytelling, the role of the imagination and faith in survival and in life.


The film begins with Pi as a boy (Gautam Belur at 5, Ayush Tandom at 12) growing up in Pondicherry, India. His father (Adil Hussain, English Vinglish) owns the Pondicherry Zoo. The most impressionable lesson he learns from his father is, the tiger is not his friend.

Pi has a loving mother (Tabu, The Namesake), and an older brother Ravi (Ayan Khan 7, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli 14, Vibish Sivakumar 19), a typical older sibling who teases and dares. This first act of family life is a delight, and the 3D effect in the opening sequence is wonderful to watch. The original score composed by Mychael Danna matches well with the exotic context.

We soon realize the story we are watching actually is the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, Slumdog Millionaire) telling what had happened to him as a boy to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall, A Room With A View), a story, Pi claims, that will make him believe in God.

Pi is short for Piscine. After the boy is constantly teased by his schoolmates with the pun of the name, he begins to introduce himself as Pi. He just might not have known how prophetic his name is. Precocious and earnest by nature, Pi embraces Hinduism, Christianity and Islam in his search for the divine. The value of Pi, the mathematical symbol, is 3.14, a number that goes on to infinity, which aptly reflects the boy’s heart for the Eternal.


When he is 16 (Suraj Sharma), Pi’s family emigrates to Canada. They set sail on the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum, bringing on board the zoo animals. One stormy night, tragedy strikes. A shipwreck sends Tsimtsum to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Pi alone is saved as some sailors throw him overboard onto a lifeboat. Thus begins the magical journey of life in an open boat. Pi soon finds out he is not alone, for there in the boat is a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan called Orange Juice, and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Soon there remain only two survivors, a 16 year-old Indian boy and a hungry tiger.

Lee demonstrates his technical and directorial prowess in this major second act of the film. He has aptly chosen to use the 3D camera. I’m not a fan of 3D, nor animal movies, but Lee’s usage of it makes what could have been an uneventful drifting at sea into an extraordinary movie experience.

What I read in the book jump out alive in magnificent visuals: the squall of flying fish, the gigantic whale shooting up from the ocean deep, the cosmic showcase of thunder and lightning, and the island overrun by meerkats. Magical realism in 3D, pure cinematic fantasy.

Lee’s style is minimalist: a life boat, a makeshift raft, a boy, a tiger, the open sea. Its simplicity exudes immense beauty; its stillness evokes quiet ruminations. This is not just a castaway, survival story. It depicts a close encounter of a soul experiencing nature and its maker. It also portrays an unlikely companionship between a boy and a tiger. Despite the loss of his family and the perils thrown at him, Pi clings to life with bare faith and the companionship he finds in Richard Parker.

The last part comes as a twist. Two employees of the ship’s insurance company interview the sole survivor of the shipwreck after Pi is rescued. Upon hearing Pi tell his ordeal, their rationale overrides any acceptance of the improbable. Here we see the thematic elements of fantasy versus reality, faith versus plausibility cleverly laid out. Like Martel’s novel, it poses a question that is open-ended, more for the viewer to resolve than for Pi to prove. A most thought-provoking end to a magical journey.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

This review has been published in the Asian American Press print version, Nov. 30, 2012 issue. Online edition here. (Hint: There you’ll find Arti morphing from virtual reality into real life… take whatever is real for you.)


CLICK HERE to read my Book Review of Life of Pi by Yann Martel.


Photos posted here are stills from movie trailer.

A NOTE ABOUT MOVIE PHOTOS: These images are used according to the Fair Use guidelines for criticism, comment and educational purposes. CLICK HERE for more information. CLICK HERE to read the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies, “Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills” by Kristin Thompson.


Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Take the Literary Journey before the 3D Experience

CLICK HERE to read my review of Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi in 3D


“I have a story that will make you believe in God.” — Life of Pi

I usually like to read the book first before seeing the film. I know full well that the two are different forms of artistic medium, but I’m intrigued by the adaptation process of transposing the literary into the visual. So, before Ang Lee’s 3D production comes out in the fall, I’ve recently reread Life of Pi, the 2002 Man Booker Prize winner by Canadian author Yann Martel.

After finishing Midnight’s Children a couple of months ago, also in preparation for the upcoming film version, I feel like I am all toned-up for magic realism.  Life of Pi leads me to retake a magical journey. This time around, I am much fonder of the delightful tale, deceptively simple and yet full of insights. The reader might first find the tidbits of animal facts and behavior amusing, only to resonate with their parallels in the human society.

Martel’s allegory is at times humorous, at times poetic and poignant, and throughout, engaging storytelling with heart and soul.

Pondicherry entered the Union of India on November 1, 1954. The Pondicherry zoo is in the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens. It is founded, owned and operated by Santosh Patel, father of Piscine Molitor Patel, more succinctly, Pi, the protagonist of our story.

Pi grows up in the zoo, animal lover by nature, animal keeper by nurture, and God seeker by creation. So when his father decides to sell the zoo, due to a lack of interest from the public, Pi, though young, understands it is only a sign of the times. The zoo and religion, both are misconstrued as confinement:

I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.

Pi’s father plans to leave India and start a new life in Canada. Other than the lack of prospect in the zoo business, Mrs. Ghandi’s government measures also play a part in his decision. In June, 1977, the Patel family steps on board the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum and set sail for Canada, with them are the animals sold to various zoos in North America.

Here begins the adventure of Pi. Unable to sleep one night, Pi walks out of his cabin only to hear an explosion moment later. Thus his life is spared as he is thrown into a lifeboat while his family is still trapped below deck. All alone, 16 year-old Pi looks back from the lifeboat in horror and watches helplessly as the ship carrying his family quickly sinks into the dark, oblivious ocean.

For 227 days, Pi drifts in the vast open sea in a 26-foot lifeboat. Not quite alone, for there with him are a zebra, an orangutan named Orange Juice, a spotted hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Soon, there remain only two of them, Richard Parker by his mere physical might, and Pi, by his intelligence and resourcefulness.

Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind.

Wise beyond his years, Pi has to use available resources to get food and water, set up routines, defend himself from predators, assert his spacial and social dominance, and above all, conquer loneliness and despair. Ironically, in the minimal existence on the 26- foot lifeboat, Pi finds motivation to live in the company of the hungry Bengal tiger Richard Parker. He has successfully turned a threat into comradeship.

After many days, they drift towards an island of meerkats. There Pi finds an abundance of algae and meerkats as food. Complacency begins to set in until the chilling discovery of human teeth drives him out to sea again.

What sets this book apart from just another survival, castaway story is its spiritual quest lyrically expressed. Pi is a deeply religious soul. While he has embraced various paths in his search, his ultimate goal is to find God. It is in his tumultuous ordeal, a tiny speck in the vast ocean, tossed and thrown by unconquerable elements that Pi experiences the presence of God. The author’s seemingly straight forward adventure embeds a magical, existential allegory.

In bare existence, Pi can still find exhiliaration in the smallest of blessings:

… You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish.

And in the midst of utter despair, the spiritual faculty can still respond. Amidst turmoils and rough seas, Pi rejoices as he beholds the wonders of creation, the inexhaustible menagerie of life, and nature displayed, raw and uncensored. One time, a magnificent bolt of lightning arouses a thunderous cosmic effect without and within, striking him speechless:

This is miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. .. this thing so vast and fantastic. I was breathless and wordless. I lay back on the tarpaulin, arms and legs spread wide. The rain chillded me to the bone. But I was smiling… I felt genuine happiness.

That momentary happiness is finally realized in true salvation. Pi and Richard Parker are saved as their boat drifts near the shore of Mexico where they are rescued. Richard Parker quickly disappears into the jungle. But the story doesn’t end there. It’s the last bit that makes Life of Pi even more thought-provoking.

Two Japanese employees of the shipping company come to interview Pi in order to find out the cause of the shipwreck. As they question the lone survivor of the Tsimtsum in a Mexican hospital, they respond to Pi’s retelling of his ordeal with polite skepticism and denial. The magical is not easily accepted by realists.

Author Yann Martel tells us a compelling survival story only to have it negated by two people convinced of its implausibility, rationalists bent on seeking evidence based only on reasoning. Fantasy and imagination are often readily presumed to be falsehood.

With Pi’s tale being dismissed by the interviewers, Martel has ingeniously crafted an allegory showing us the value of stories, teasing us with the definition of truth and reality, while transporting us to a realm beyond the limits of the intellect… maybe on that level, somehow, like Pi, we can get a glimpse of God.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Vintage Canada Edition, 2002, 354 pages.

The three cover images on this post: Vintage Canada edition, U.S. Mariner Books edition, and movie-tie-in edition coming out October, 2012, also from Mariner Books.

This review has been published in the August 31, 2012 print issue of Asian American Press. Online edition here. For those curious about what Arti is like, the mystery is revealed there.

CLICK HERE to watch the TRAILER of the film, opener of the 50th New York Film Festival on Sept. 28th, 2012.

CLICK HERE for a list of highly anticipated film adaptations from literary sources coming out this fall.



I had the pleasure to meet author Yann Martel in a reading two years ago. He was very friendly and affable, took time to chat with me, signed my copy of the book and another one I’d intended for my son. Not a tale, here are the photos:

In the title page of my son’s copy, he wrote:

“To ___,

May you reach the coast of Mexico.”

Don’t we all need to find shore to land?


Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

It has been nine years since Yann Martel’s second novel The Life of Pi first published. Its winning the Booker Prize in 2002 has solidly placed him on the international literary stage. Beatrice and Virgil is the long awaited third novel by this Saskatoon based Canadian author.

Beatrice is a donkey.  Virgil, a howler monkey.  They are the two characters in a play written by a taxidermist.  Beatrice and Virgil are also specimens in his shop Okapi Taxidermy.  The two names come from Dante’s Divine Comedy, to which the book has made reference. The metaphor of taxidermy is a fresh frame Martel constructed to look at the Holocaust. The preservation of evidence of lives lived, the mounting of historical facts.

Beatrice and Virgil is also a love story.  The two animals cherish each other and have to face the cruelty of extinction together.  In the play, they have elaborate talks about fruits, a striped shirt, God and faith.  It’s all allegorical of course.  And there’s the rub.

While I fully appreciate Martel’s attempt at creating a new frame to present the atrocity of the Holocaust, I doubt using animals as symbols and parallels, depicting the cruel treatment of them would suffice to convey the magnitude and severity of this horrific crime against humanity.  Despite a sincere intent and the riveting storyline, I feel the book fails to deliver the dynamics and efficacy in its form as an allegory.

Nonetheless, the book conveys some very interesting points, through which Martel has demonstrated the imaginative power of literary creation.  First off, the author plays with the notion that the line separating fiction and non-fiction is indeed blurry.  To make a case of it, he writes himself into the story.  The main character is an author called Henry, whose wife Sarah later on gives birth to their son Theo, the name of Martel’s own son with his partner, the writer Alice Kuipers.

Back to the story, Henry’s second book has stirred international sensations, winning prizes, adopted by schools and book clubs, and adapted into a Hollywood movie.  Life of Pi is all that.  And just like in real life, it has been a few years after that before the fictional Henry completes his third novel, a book on the Holocaust.  But this time, he has trouble finding a publisher (now this may diverge from real life.)

This new book Henry wants to get published is a literary fusion. He wants it to be a ‘flip book’.  One side is fiction, the other side an essay, with the title on both.  And that is exactly what the cover of this book Beatrice and Virgil is like.  Henry observes that all Holocaust accounts have been ‘historical, factual, and literal’, it is worthwhile to create a fictional rendition of it, “a new choice of stories”, providing readers with an artistic expression representing these well documented, horrific happenings.  And this is exactly what Martel has done, constructing imaginary portals based on facts.

Once these layers have been peeled off, there is yet another with Henry meeting the taxidermist who is writing the play using Beatrice and Virgil as the two main characters. Coincidentally, he is also called Henry. So, the amateur writer Henry mysteriously involves the professional writer Henry to help him with the completion of his play on the Holocaust.  But of course, there remains yet another layer of secret.

The image of Escher’s Drawing Hands keeps emerging in my mind as I read the book, how a writer would write himself into the story and into the story.

While the style of storytelling is intriguing, when one considers the topic and the major crux of the book, that being the atrocity that is the Holocaust, it is apparent that the choice of the deadpan treatment of a donkey and a howler monkey in allegorical terms just would not suffice. While the play in the book is reminiscent of other two-character plays, namely, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For GodotBeatrice and Virgil seems to lack the wit of the former and the depth of the latter.

And as I think about the fact that it has taken the author nine years to come to this one, I wonder, just wonder… Oh, the creative process is indeed an incomprehensible and uncertain path, as cryptic as an Escher drawing.

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel, published by Knopf Canada, 2010, 224 pages.

~~ ½ Ripples


Epilogue:  Yann Martel Reading at the Calgary Public Library



After writing the above section on Beatrice & Virgil, Arti has the privilege of listening to Yann Martel read from his new book at the Calgary Public Library tonight (April 28, 2010).  It’s always interesting to hear a writer read from his own work.  It’s even more gratifying listening to the Q & A session afterwards.  Yes, he is still sending books to Stephen Harper because he firmly believes that literature is the tool to understand the human condition.

The writer also talked about the creative act, and the use of animals as symbolism. Animals are inherently poignant.  And, how did he know at that pivotal moment of his life, that he wanted to become a writer?  It’s from within, you’d know it because you’d simply want to write without any consideration of monetary gains or praises.  It’s a strong feeling inside moving you to just do it.

Do I need to make any changes to the review above after hearing the author read from the book?  No, I don’t think so.  But what has changed is my view of the writer.  I have come face to face with a very personable and casual human being, someone who is convinced that literature can teach us how to be human, that fiction is as important as facts, and that the creative act of writing is driven by an inherently insatiable desire to simply write, without the intention of being published or any notion of ‘success’ in mind.


What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Now that the Winter Olympics have come to a close, maybe more of the world would have heard of Stephen Harper.  No, no, he isn’t a medal winner.  Just a hockey fan, and, he happens to be Canada’s Prime Minister.

And it’s good time to read this book.  It all started one March day in 2007.  Fifty Canadian artists of all sorts were invited to a Parliamentary session to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts, each of them representing a particular year.

There they were sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, waiting for their item to come up on the long agenda of the day.  At 3:00 pm, the business came to the celebration.  All fifty of them were asked to stand up. The Minister for Canadian Heritage, Bev Oda at the time, rose up, acknowledged their presence, and gave a five-minute speech.  Applause.  Then on to the next business item.  Stephen Harper did not even look up at them standing in the Gallery.

The fifty guest artists were incredulous.  Among them was Yann Martel, who received a Canada Council grant in 1991 allowing him to write his first novel.  His literary career reached an admirable high in 2002 when he was awarded The Man Booker Prize for his book Life of Pi.  (CLICK HERE to read one appreciative reader’s response to the book, a personal note from Barack Obama.)

After this incident, driven by frustration, Martel decided to launch a most interesting project.  He started sending Stephen Harper a book every two weeks, with his personal letter introducing  the work, and of course, whenever appropriate, fill him in as to why that’s a good read for a Prime Minister.   With such an intention, one can predict the tone of these letters.  They are mostly sincere, mind you, albeit embedded with the occasional sarcasm, irony, and yes, some condescending subtext.

But overall, these letters to the Prime Minister sent with the books are genuine appeal to the Leader of the country to place more emphasis on the arts. They offer a place of stillness in the busy agenda of a politician.  Martel’s is a gentle voice to remind the prime policy maker the role of the arts, in particular, literature and its appreciation, in the making of a nation, the importance of beauty and the imagination in the building of a vision and in shaping the humanity of her people.

So, it’s not so much as to what Stephen Harper is reading, but what’s on his TBR list.  It remains unknown whether the PM has actually read any of these gifts, although letters of appreciation had been sent to Martel from his office. It’s fun too to read the choices of the titles… and their reasons.  But above all, I’ve enjoyed reading Martel’s insights into how the literary speaks in the context of contemporary political and social landscape.  Here are some examples.  I’ve included a quote or two from Martel’s letter sent with each title:

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is about collective folly.  It is a political book, which won’t be lost on someone in your line of business.  It deals with one of the few matters on which we can all agree:  the evil of tyranny.

Animal Farm is a perfect exemplar of one of the things that literature can be: portable history.  … in a scant 120 pages, … the reader is made wise to the ways of the politically wicked.  That too is what literature can be: an inoculation.”

The Island Means Minago by Milton Acorn (People’s Poet of Canada)

“But any revolution that uses poetry as one of its weapons has at least one correct thing going for it: the knowledge that artistic expression is central to who and how a people are.”

“… the past is one thing, but what we make of it, the conclusions we draw, is another.  History can be many things, depending on how we read it, just as the future can be many things, depending on how we live it… And it is by dreaming first that we get to new realities.  Hence the need for poets.”

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

“Literature speaks the language of the imagination.”

“… the better, the more fertile our imagination, the better we can be at being both reasonable and emotional. As broad and deep as our dreams are, so can our realities become.  And there’s no better way to train that vital part of us than through literature.”

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

“So, more cuts in arts funding… What does $45 million buy that has more worth than a people’s cultural expression, than a people’s sense of who they are?”

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

“Lloyd Jones’s novel is about how literature can create a new world.  It is about how the world can be read like a novel, and a novel like the world.”

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

“Why a book on music?  Because serious music, at least as represented by new and classical music, is fast disappearing from our Canadian lives… the latest proof of this: the CBC Radio Orchestra is to be disbanded… How much culture can we do without before we become lifeless, corporate drones?  I believe that both in good and bad times we need beautiful music.”

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

“The irony in the story is as light as whipped cream, the humour as appealing as candy, the characterization as crisp as potato chips, but at the heart of it there’s something highly nutritious to be digested:  the effect that books can have on a life.”

“Whenever an independent bookstore disappears, shareholders somewhere may be richer, but a neighbourhood is for sure poorer.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

“Speaking of President Obama, it’s because of him that I’m sending you the novel Gilead, by the American writer Marilynne Robinson.  It’s one of his favourite novels.”

“I would sincerely recommend that you read Gilead before you meet President Obama on February 19.  For two people who are meeting for the first time, there’s nothing like talking about a book that both have read to create common ground and a sense of intimacy, of knowing the other in a small but important way.  After all, to like the same book implies a similar emotional response to it, a shared recognition of the world reflected in it. This is assuming , of course, that you like the book.”

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

“Since Julius Caesar is about power and politics, we might as well talk about power and politics.  Let me discuss concerns I have with two decisions your government recently announced.

My first concern is about the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.  New money allocated to the Council is apparently to be spent exclusively on “business-related degrees”…. we’re losing sight of the purpose of a university if we think it’s the place to churn out MBAs.  A university is the repository and crucible of a society, the place where it studies itself.  It is the brain of a society.  It is not the wallet… A university builds minds and souls.  A business employs.”

Louis Riel by Chester Brown and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima

“But I’ve always liked that about books, how they can be so different from each other and yet rest together without strife on a bookshelf.  The hope of literature, the hope of stillness, is that the peace with which the most varied books can lie side by side will transform their readers, so that they too will be able to live side by side with people very different from themselves.”


Yann Martel is still sending books to Stephen Harper every two-weeks.  Other authors he has sent include Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, Ayn Rand, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Michael Ignatieff, Paul McCartney, Dylan Thomas, Laura and Jenna Bush… quite an eclectic selection. Excellent demonstration of how we can be so drastically different in our perspectives and background, and yet can still stand shoulder to shoulder in this vast land of the free.

To read the full list of all the books he has sent, and yes, including this one, CLICK HERE to go to the official site:  What Is Stephen Harper Reading dot ca

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel, published by Vintage Canada, 2009, 233 pages.


Regarding the role of universities and the humanities as dying disciplines, CLICK HERE to read my post: THE HUMANITIES AS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES.