Life of Pi, Yann Martel's fantastical folk parable about faith and spirituality, makes the journey to the big screen more or less intact, a meditative Ang Lee film with many of the same virtues and shortcomings of the novel.
It's an inscrutable morality tale that explains itself, rather too overtly (like the novel) in the end, but its pleasures are undeniable and its mysteries rewarding to contemplate.
A survival-at-sea story is framed within the conversation of a frustrated novelist who has been sent to meet a man who endured 227 days adrift in a lifeboat. The novelist has been told this man's tale is a story that would make me believe in God.
But Pi's autobiography is too magical, far-fetched and literary to be believed.
Take the character's name: an Indian boy, raised in a zoo, named Piscine after a relative's love of swimming pools. The precocious child endures profane teasing about his name just long enough to invent his own nickname. He is Pi, like that magical mathematical constant, and his way of making sure the name sticks is one of the film's funnier indulgences.
Pi grows up in 1950s India, a brilliant child whose curiosity ranges from religions to the animals in his father's menagerie.
Animals have souls, he insists to his father. I have seen it in their eyes.
When Pi's family sells the zoo and the ship they and the animals are on sinks in the deepest corner of the Pacific, Pi finds himself on the lone lifeboat, stranded with an injured zebra, a mourning orangutan, a crazed hyena and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.
Lee manages to make this odd ark convincing. There is just enough gear – food, water, life jackets – for Pi to keep his distance from the two critters who will surely kill him when starvation sets in.
Special effects render the barren, glassy sea into a dreamland, one that provides just enough food to keep the boy alive and to keep the peace with the tiger.
Pi has a lot of piety to fall back on for this ordeal. The Buddhist in him grieves at having to kill to stay alive, and he refuses to do in the tiger, even when the opportunity arises. He turns his eyes skyward and prays, God, I give myself to you, whatever comes.
The cryptic, spiritual nature of the story – the metaphorical treatment of faith – blesses Pi with a hint of the vision-quest gravitas the character, author and filmmaker were going for. Lee is on sure ground with this magical realism, this floating parable for a spiritually adrift age.
What: Life Of Pi
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu and Gerard Depardieu
Directed by: Ang Lee
Running time: 125 minutes
Rated: PG for emotional thematic content, scary action and peril