‘Life of Pi’: Why Ang Lee’s Movie Upstages Martel’s Novel

Why read the “unfilmable” book when you can watch the insanely beautiful, perfectly filmed movie?

When I was in secondary school in ’74, my English teacher had me read this wonderful book called Lord of the Flies. (I know, who didn’t?) William Golding’s classic tale about a group of English schoolboys who are plane-wrecked on a deserted island left a lasting impression.

After our class finished studying the novel, we were rewarded with a viewing of the ’63 film version. I was so disappointed. The misinterpretation of my imagination of Golding’s characters was more horrifying than the incidents portrayed on celluloid!

I predict another novel, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, will be studied in a similar way by future generations. The difference is those students will be rewarded with a viewing of the just-released, sensational, epic 3D adaptation of the supposedly “unfilmable” book.


Ang Lee’s adaptation corrects the faults of the book and makes the old Lord of the Flies adaptation look like a TV movie of the week in comparison. How often does that happen?

Martel’s tale involves a gripping story with odd similarities to Golding’s. This time, a young boy is shipwrecked—the sole survivor of the sinking of a cargo ship—and must survive on a small lifeboat drifting in the middle of the desert-like Pacific Ocean. It also explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of the Pacific Ocean.

Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature; Martel, The Man Booker Prize. But the mistake Martel made in his novel that Golding didn’t was getting in the way of his own story.

While it’s completely fine to have his titular character recount his journey (“My greatest wish—other than salvation—was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One that I could read again and again, with new eyes and fresh understanding each time.”), in his own notes preceding his tale, Martel states that this is “a story to make you believe in God.” His bold claim smacks of self-importance; he attempts to set up high expectations in his audience, which comes off as clumsy given the less-than-subliminal message.

Perhaps some readers and moviegoers are like me: we just want to read and witness a good story told well. We don’t want to analyze every possible scenario (e.g. Does the Tiger really exist? Does Pi’s journey simply comprise carefully constructed representations of Sigmund Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego?—Get my drift?). Whereas, Martel’s novel left me adrift (pun intended) and told me what to think, Lee wisely—with astounding precision—pares down the novel’s drama and proselytizing.

What both the novel and film share are parts that are so moving, so exhilarating, so extraordinary that the reader/viewer is left to catch his or her breath. On the film lever, however, Lee takes digital 3-D technology and makes it an art form.

And I love the Canadian connection. Yann Martel, the child of diplomats, grew up in Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Alaska, and Canada and now lives in Montreal. Pi ends up working in Montreal as well.

Unlike Lord of the Flies, I didn’t want to read Life of Pi again and again—yet, I’ll concede that Martel nonetheless cooked up one hell of a good story.

(Oh, and by the way, the novel didn’t “make” me believe in God. Nevertheless, thank God Ang Lee made it into one of the best movies of 2012.)

Read more in A&E.

About Donald D'Haene

Donald D'Haene started his own successful theatre/opinion web site: http://www.donaldsdish.ca, is an author (Father's Touch), Huffington Post Blogger, and was one of the male Survivors on the Oprah 200 Survivors Episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, November 2010. Follow Donald D'Haene on Twitter @TheDonaldNorth.


  1. Thanks for your comment Ted. I have friends who love the book…as I wrote I loved parts of the book but I loved the entire film. I do not think I missed any of the experience of the book and if I had experienced the book in the film I would have been disappointed. I know you are not alone in your experience but neither am I..I received this note from someone tonight:

    “I agree completely…When I read the book years ago, the moment I read the last word on the last page, I immediately went back to word one on page one—I simply did not want it to end.
    I did not expect to be disappointed by the movie, only because the promos were so good. We saw it over Thanksgiving, and loved it. I am glad they left out the “two blind guys” scene, and even though they PG’ed the heck out of it, it was visually spectacular and emotionally fulfilling.”

  2. While I agree that the film is lovely, it misses so much of the experience of the book. Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker becomes much more central in the movie (and in a way that misrepresents animal training technique) whereas Pi’s religious wonder holds more focus in the novel.

    Also, Yann Martel’s “notes” at the beginning of the book are part of the whole point too, a fascinating and unsettling meta-version of the “Which is the better story?” question. (As in, the novel starts with the appearance of notes, rather than after the notes are done.)

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