As the opening night film for the New York Film Festival, all eyes were on “Life of Pi,” the big-budget studio adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-seller from A-List director Ang Lee. And while some were focused on the spectacle of the film, from the enormous cost and logistical issues of filming to the colorful 3D that frames this story of survival, the one element that drove the filmmakers was the idea of faith.
Speaking to a New York Film Festival audience, Martel talked about the origins of this very peculiar story, about a religious Indian child raised in a zoo and stranded at sea with a small ship, a Bengal tiger, and his faith. “I started writing the book when I was in India,” he says, adding he in the midst of writing an entirely unrelated other novel. “I was hitchhiking for six months. This novel just wasn’t coming to life, so I had to put it aside. For the first time in my life, I finally noticed the abundance of religious expression in India. There’s more religion expressed per square mile in India than everywhere else on Earth.”
Adds director Ang Lee, the architect of Martel’s onscreen world, “You don’t know the strength of your faith until it’s been tested. The zoo to him has a paradise. He’s innocent. And he has all these imaginative stories in his head, all these spiritual things, and in the ocean he can’t even rely on organized religions, it’s just the will of God. Eventually he embraces faith, because there’s no way he would survive."
“I was intrigued not so much by the anthropology of it, how religion is manifested, but how it’s lived, how it’s felt,” Martel says. “I was interested in the phenomenon of faith. So it’s this very deeply unreasonable capacity to believe something that is fundamentally unreasonable. I didn’t want to focus on one [religion] in particular, I wanted to look at what’s common to all religions, which is that phenomenon of faith. Each religion has a different view of the universe, but at the core they have that leap of faith, believing something that is not rational, not material in front of you.”
Of course, faith alone would not be enough to bring this colorful story to the screen. Admits Martel, “When I was writing it, it was very cinematic in my mind, because of the contract of colors, the blue ocean, the white lifeboat, the orange and white tiger. But I never thought I’d see it on the screen, it would be too complicated to do.”
Lee had similar reservations, even if he was immediately captivated by the book. “I read it when the book came out, found it fascinating and mind-boggling,” Lee says. Though he concedes, “I thought, nobody in their right mind would make this. Because it’s literature, it’s philosophy, regardless how cinematic it is. It would be very very expensive, nearly impossible to do, and how are you going to sell this thing? I thought the economic side and the artistic side would not meet.” As Lee said before the screening, with a twinkle in his eye, “There is classic advice in film business: Never make a movie featuring kids, animals, water, or in 3D. I ignore all the vices because ‘Life of Pi’ is a great story, an incredible story. It only comes to life when one person passes it to another.”