I must first qualify that I am a huge fan of the book. I read it a few years back and revisited it again at the end of this summer, before I knew this film was coming out. I was very excited when I saw it was coming out and would be directed by Ang Lee.
From the perspective of a fan of the book, I thought this film was great. The ending is, shall we say, ambiguous and certainly that will drive some repeat viewership, But I would go back and see it in a heartbeat just because it was beautiful and thrilling. (I watched it in 3D). The CGI work was just flawless. The tools have come so far since Gladiator or even Transformers where you could only portray something realistic if it were moving very fast and blurring.
This film is controversial for a number of reasons. I feel the PG rating is too low, especially for a holiday weekend release. Though I guess there were a number of the Harry Potter movies that were PG, but I think with the themes of this film some parents who take their elementary age kids in are going to be unhappy if they take their children in without vetting the movie first.
Religious people who style themselves scientifically informed might have a problem as well with the conclusions drawn at the end, some like Eric Snider feel that a belief in God is compared to a “demonstrably false” fantasy. Here I have to pull the “if you understood the book” thing and say that the miracle lay not in what he described, but in his perception of events and how that allowed him to survive mentally and spiritually, not physically. But Mr. Snider, whom I usually follow enthusiastically, felt the first third of the film was plodding, and I can’t know if that is just a weakness in the film being based faithfully on the book. A third of the book is spent in India setting the stage for how Pi would be able to survive his ocean ordeal. Mr. Snider also felt the denoument was too hasty. When one is familiar with what was in the book and what was not, I think it is clear that the director showed great care and restraint in what was included and what was added.
For instance, I knew from the trailers that they had added a girlfriend for Pi that he leaves in India, and I had some trepidation about what this meant for the film. As it turns out, it was necessary to make it clear that he would be unhappy to leave India and move to the Americas, and it also established that he was not simply autistic, as the scenes of his being bullied, choosing a new name for himself, his religious quest and his first encounter with the tiger could suggest. His emotions involved a lot of exposition in the book, and simply adding a girlfriend assisted a great deal in that.
There were a couple of very nice touches I do not believe were in the book, what the Priest says to Pi the first time they meet and what Pi says near the end about life being a process of letting go. His sorrow over his parting with Richard Parker appeared near the beginning of the book, when Parker’s identity is still ambiguous.
In all, I would have to say this film definitely achieved three of the four objectives an adaptation of a book needs to achieve. It was a moving illustration of the book for people that have a cursory familiarity with the story (as my daughter who watched with me found). It told the story in a way that improved in small ways on the book without overpowering it for those who love the book. It will almost certainly get some people to want to read the book. I do not know about my fourth criteria, which would be whether it is an effective story that can replace having read the book, which I believe Lee achieved with Sense and Sensibility. (I have read other novels by Austen but not S&S, but I watch the film over and over.) I think it was much better than, say, Prometheus which is probably the closest film I can think of that tries to accomplish anything similar to this, which is a serious philosophical discussion in a speculative fiction setting, and which built upon a canon with which many but not all viewers would be versed.