The path of Life of Pi from bestselling fantasy-adventure novel to 3D movie was nearly as tumultuous as the 227-day journey of the Indian boy Pi in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Numerous directors were engaged to adapt Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning 2001 book, including M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuarón, as well as several screenwriters. Ultimately the job fell to director Ang Lee and writer David Magee, and it appears to have been the right choice. The film preserves the story's integrity with a thoughtful script and by casting largely unknown international actors rather than Hollywood stars (Tobey Maguire's part was recast). The mightily impressive visual effects, while not essential to this story, at least do not overwhelm Martel's spiritual allegory.
In the film's earliest and most interesting section, grown-up Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), living in Canada, recounts his story in an interview with author Martel (Rafe Spall). Born in Pondicherry, India, he was named Piscine Molitor after a fancy public swimming pool in France. Tired of being called "Pissing Patel" by teasing schoolmates, he rechristens himself Pi (played as a youngster by Ayush Tandon and as a teenager by newcomer Suraj Sharma) and begins exploring religions beyond his native Hinduism, simultaneously observing the rituals of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. His father (Adil Hassain), who runs a zoo, takes a dim view of Pi's ecumenicism. He has a similarly pragmatic view of animals, teaching Pi not to get too close to the critters by forcing him to watch as the Bengal tiger, named "Richard Parker" through a clerical error, devours a helpless live goat. "They are not playmates!" his father sternly warns.
Pi's father decides to sell the animals and move the family to Canada, and the family, along with some zoo animals, boards a Japanese freighter. Within days, the boat capsizes in a horrific storm. While 3D technology is a little like the old joke about why dogs lick their genitals — filmmakers do it "because they can" -— the effects are good at drawing the viewer directly into the stormy sea. Pi, the sole survivor, ends up in a small lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the tiger. The castaway zoo is no Disney Jungle Book; true to their wild nature, the starving animals devour one another, leaving only Pi and the tiger to work out an uneasy truce.
Armed with canned water and rations and a survival guidebook ("Above all, don't lose hope"), Pi devises ways of keeping Richard Parker fed with fish so the tiger doesn't eat him. Hunger and thirst and turbulent weather, not to mention the starved tiger, bring Pi perilously close to death. In retrospect, he credits Richard Parker with keeping him alive – having to meet the tiger's needs gives him a sense of purpose, and his fear of the tiger keeps him alert.
The maritime adventure of boy and beast, depicted at exhausting length, becomes increasingly outlandish in the retelling. Was Pi delirious? Did God answer his prayers by keeping him alive? The adventure story gives way to ambiguity as the connection is made between the castaway story and Pi's search for God. Author Martel leaves it to the reader ( "You decide which is the real story"), and the film leaves it to the viewer to find his own meaning.