This February, the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard will welcome cinema’s biggest names to its doors, as it hosts the 85th Academy Awards. As always, the most coveted award of the night will be the ‘Best Picture’ gong, which this year will be hotly contended between Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic Lincoln, the cinematic rendition of the renowned musical Les Misérables (directed by 2010 Oscar winner Tom Hooper) and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. The latter of which stands out to me as the most likely to take home the prize, here are a few reasons why:
For many years, Life of Pi lay in a category of literature known as “unfilmable novels”. This label often means that a literary work would not translate well onto film, either for being too visually challenging or incoherently structured, or in Life of Pi’s case, both. Novels such as Watchmen and The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha have fallen prey to this category in the past; their transition onto film being rather troublesome. Just this year we finally received the long-awaited movie adaptation of novelist Jack Kerouac’s love letter to the ‘Beat Generation’ – On the Road. The film suffered because of its source’s indistinct narrative structure; opening to mixed reviews. In Life of Pi‘s case, the fight for publication was far more arduous than its journey to the big screen.
Prior to its publication in 2001, Life of Pi was turned down by Penguin, Chatto & Windus and at least five other London publishing houses, before finally being accepted by Knopf Canada. Written by French-Canadian novelist Yann Martel, the fantasy adventure follows Pi; a young Indian boy who survives a disastrous shipwreck. Stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker as his only companions; Pi is forced to embark on a life-changing adventure. Along the way, Martel uses his narrative to raise broad philosophical questions; exploring themes of religion and faith.
Upon its release the novel earned universal critical acclaim and amassed a whole host of awards from across the world. Most notably, it was presented with the Man Booker Prize for fiction, which is annually given to the most outstanding English language novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth. Although the last three ‘Best Picture’ awards have gone to films from original screenplays, some of the Oscars’ biggest winners of recent times have been adapted from globally renowned novels, including Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. And the early signs are that David Magee’s adapted screenplay does a masterful job of carving a compelling film out of its notoriously discursive source material. In discussing the efforts of Life of Pi‘s creative minds, Empire’s Olly Richards described the “coherent” film as “something beautiful, wise and, at time, miraculous”. Magee is no stranger to Oscar hype, and could score his second nomination at the February awards, following his adaptation of The Man Who Was Peter Pan for the 2004 ‘Best Picture’ nominee Finding Neverland.
Believe it or not the Oscars do get it wrong sometimes, and the Academy just love to retrospectively right their wrongs a few years down the line. There is no doubt that The Departed is a great film, but we all know that Martin Scorsese received his ‘Best Director’ gong that year because he was wrongly overlooked for Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, need I go on? We also know that in 2005, Brokeback Mountain’s well-deserved ‘Best Picture’ award went amiss after the powers that be unjustly gave the statuette to Crash. The Ang Lee directed western was sadly ignored, despite being the best film of that year by far; perhaps the more anachronous members of the Academy weren’t quite ready to bestow their most prestigious award to film about gay cowboys.
Anyone who sees the movie’s trailer cannot help but be blown away by the sheer beauty and scale of its stunning visuals. And initial critical response seems to be that the film itself lives up to the hype not only in terms of aesthetical brilliance, but also in terms of narrative. So now that Ang Lee is back with another strong Oscar contender, perhaps it will finally be decided that 2013 is Life of Pi’s year; after all, the Academy famously loves a good life-affirming story.