You've got to give author Yann Martel credit for coming up with a concept scarier than being lost at sea in a lifeboat: being lost at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Even better, he uses the idea to talk about life, the universe and everything, which is a strangely appropriate line of thought coming from a character in constant danger of getting eaten.
In his 2012 movie adaptation of Life of Pi, director Ang Lee takes Martel's work more seriously than one takes the SATs, and he delivers a movie as close to the spirit and text of the book as he possibly can.
And he comes pretty close. Martel writes with a very visual eye—whales a' leapin', tigers a' growlin', the eye of God looking right down on everything—and Lee knows how to bring all that to life on the silver screen—in 3D, no less.
Lee keeps the three-part structure of the novel intact, starting with Pi's (Suraj Sharma) ultra-snazzy childhood in an Indian zoo that his family runs (you jealous? We are). Follow that up with the whole my-ship-sank-and-now-I'm-stuck-on-a-lifeboat-with-a-bloodthirsty-tiger, and we're definitely heading in the right direction. Sure enough, even the third part, in which the Japanese Ministry of Transport grills Pi about the wreck, has been left intact. Mission: faithful adaptation? Accomplished.
In true Martel form, the story unfolds in a flashback: the older Pi gives us a silky smooth voiceover while telling the reporter (and us) what happened out on the ocean. Besides cutting some of the less vital passages out (like Pi's description of the algae and sea life growing under his raft, which might make you snooze), Lee never changes course. Lost at sea? Not this guy.
When it comes to shaking things up on the book-to-movie journey. Life of Pi the movie is not so interested in changing the content they've been handed. Instead, they just approach things a bit differently.
Take, for example, they way the movie handles the alternate explanation of Pi's experience on the boat. In the book, when Pi describes his at-sea hijinks to the Japanese, it's a short little jaunt into an alternate reality. The version with the tiger gets more page time because, well, there's a tiger.
But Ang Lee, being a clever fellow, conveys all this information visually. So while the version of the story with the tiger is told in full flashback, with fancy special effects and lush visuals, the alternate explanation gets none of that good stuff. We just see Pi sitting in the office with the Japanese and talking about it. No ocean, no raft, no other actors. Lee tells us instead of showing us, which that stresses how boring and uncompelling the alternate explanation is. It has the same effect as the book; it's just delivered in a different way.
Lee makes careful cuts in other places too, both to help the story move along more quickly, and to keep the ratings board from jumping all over him. The scene where the hyena eats the other animals on the raft, for instance, is shown only briefly and from a distance so as not to earn the picture an "R" rating. It was a lot messier in the book, where Martel didn't have to protect the wee ones from all that carnage. These aren't changes so much as stylistic choices: the same information is presented in both cases, and actually they both make smart use of the audience's imagination. It's just a question of how they do it.
Martel, using only words, paints a vivid and detailed picture of the violence, trusting our minds to fill in all the icky details. Lee, with the visual ability to show us all the icky details he wants, chooses instead to back off: showing the scene from a distance and hiding the details. In both cases, we've got to rely on our vivid imaginations for the full, grisly picture, which tells us that at the end of the day, books and movies aren't so very different from each other after all.
So which takes the cake, folks, the movie or the book? Shmoop amongst yourselves.