Life of Pi brings ‘unfilmable’ novel to the screen

Tough life: Pi must tame an aggressive tiger, as well as learning to survive at sea © 20th Century Fox

Acclaimed director Ang Lee’s adaptation of ‘Life of Pi’ is set to take cinemas by storm next week. How did the book’s fantastical scenes get adapted to the big screen?

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is a strange book. Now a beloved cult novel, it tells the tale of 16-year-old Pi Patel, sole survivor of a devastating shipwreck, who finds himself trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Mortal enemies and enforced companions, the pair survive together for 227 days. As the surreal scenario progresses, it becomes unclear whether events are real or the fevered imaginings of a malnourished and frightened boy.

The book’s dreamlike narrative and surreal settings – and the small issue of putting a boy and a deadly tiger in a tiny boat together – made filming it a daunting prospect. For years, esteemed directors signed up then backed out. ‘Unfilmable!’ critics cried. Then Ang Lee took it on – and made a movie that’s being hailed as a masterpiece.

Using cutting-edge computer generated imagery, the director of Brokeback Mountain and Hulk has created ocean storms, carnivorous ecosystems and one terrifying tiger. Viewers will become a part of that world, too, as it leaps out of the screen in spectacular 3D.

Advanced technology like this is fast widening the possibilities of film. This year, blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises showcased superhero special effects. Even indie films incorporated CGI worlds: Beasts of the Southern Wild, for example, is about a strange society full of unreal creatures, but perched on the edge of our own. Like Life of Pi, it is an example of magic realism – a genre in which fantastical happenings creep into everyday life.

The form is a literary staple: a classic is Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which fills an oddly normal city with ghosts, levitation and unpredictable, shifting time.

And now technology can seamlessly weave fantasy into film, we could be seeing more of it on screen. This month also welcomed the movie of Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie’s sprawling masterpiece, which tells the story of Indian independence through the eyes of a child with bizarre superpowers.

A kind of magic?

Is 3D and CGI changing cinema? Clearly, some say: film has never been so saturated in fantasy and spectacle. Now extravagant special effects are possible, it seems they are expected. Technology is fundamentally changing what art is about.

Not so, others retort. Fantasy was merged with movie reality decades ago, and realism is still a force in film: just look at Mary Poppins, or this year’s critical hit The Master. Technological advances gives artists more tools with which to realise their creative vision: they do not dictate what they want to create.

You Decide

  1. How might magical metaphors help writers and filmmakers explore real-life issues?
  2. Has technology changed what we expect from art? If so, do you think its influence has been good or bad?


  1. Holiday project: readLife of Pi. Do you think the events in the book are meant to be taken literally? Or do they illustrate something else?
  2. Write your own magic realism short story, using interesting and unusual metaphors to embellish real-life happenings.

Some People Say...

“Fantasy is for kids.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This magic realism stuff all sounds a bit silly.
Fantasy isn’t just the realm of children’s fairy stories and big-budget adventure movies. In magic realism, strange happenings and departures from reality are metaphorical – they illustrate things in real life that are difficult to convey through normal events.
Any examples?
One famous case can be found in Salman Rushdie’sThe Satanic Verses. When the book’s main character arrives in the UK from India, he is transformed into a devil. When he is abused by police and detained as an illegal immigrant, his horrific appearance becomes exaggerated. The storyline shows how the character has been wrongly demonised because of his immigrant status. Metaphors like this can become powerful commentaries on social issues.

Word Watch

Pi Patel
Or Piscine Molitor Patel: named after a French swimming pool. Pi’s story begins where he grew up, in Pondicherry, India, where his father owned a zoo. The character is played by Suraj Sharma, a 17-year-old from New Delhi who had no previous acting experience whatsoever.
Ang Lee
Taiwanese American director Ang Lee is responsible for an extraordinarily broad range of movies: his work includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk and Sense and Sensibility, all of which belong to different genres.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez is a Colombian writer, whose is often credited with popularising magic realism – though the genre’s origins lie in a broader movement in South American writing. Many critics think its techniques are an attempt to negotiate competing and complicated cultural forces, by using magical themes to forge an original and independent voice. Marquez himself remains humble about his work – he once described One Hundred Years of Solitude as ‘a bit of a joke’.

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