The film, as it turns out, is a triumph. Not only does it accomplish the difficult task of presenting the fantasy adventure of Pi's unlikely ocean voyage in an open lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger for company but it manages to present the philosophical undergirding which gives the novel such unsettling power.
Life of Pi is primarily about religion. Note: it is not a religious book but a book about religion. A young boy who shares his name with a mathematical symbol survives a shipwreck and a long period alone in a lifeboat. At the end of the book the reader is presented with two different versions of his survival and invited not so much to choose which version is "true" but to judge which version is the better story. This is a metaphor, or perhaps better, an illustration of the way religious narrative works. A religion, suggests Martel, is a narrative which explains the universe and the human condition. It is a story which not only explains the existence of the universe but gives clues as to the universe's ultimate purpose and of our part in it. To ask of a religious narrative questions of mere facticity is to ask the wrong questions. To reduce the story of the universe to lists of facts and dates is not just unhelpful; it does injury to us by excluding, as a matter of course, all considerations of meaning. So, at the start of the book Pi is portrayed as being simultaneously a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. In much the same way that the book gives two stories to account for Pi's survival, Pi is able to draw on 3 stories to explain the Universe.
The theme of story runs all the way through the book. There is the fanciful story of Pi's naming for example. There is a story of how Pi came to be interviewed and the book to be written. Stories interweave and nest inside each other like a Shakespearean play within a play. So the reader reads a story of a man writing a story in which he is told a story.... and who is reading ours, the reader's story? And who is writing it?
All of this philosophical complexity is contained in the book by the use of appendices and by editorial comment from the (fictional) 'author'. In the film it is handled by presenting quite lengthy conversations between the adult Pi and his interviewer. It's a technique which is potentially clumsy and intrusive but Ang Lee has pulled it off.
This is another movie to see in 3D if you have the option. The computer graphics are stunning: shots of sea and sky where the lighting and composition are perfect because they have been manufactured to be perfect; where weather and stars and sea and creatures can be manipulated as elements in a great work of art for their aesthetic and their metaphorical value. And despite this being such a profound and intelligent piece, both as book and film, it works very well also as an adventure story, nicely paced and visually pleasing.
Having seen The Hobbit only a few days before, this is a deeper, richer, better film; a work of art as opposed to an amusement. I will probably buy the DVD when it comes out as I suspect I will want to watch the film at least as often as I have read the book.