The frame story is a harsh mistress. Many a brave storyteller have tried to utilize this narrative device with mixed results. For every Canterbury Tales there’s a Melinda and Melinda. It’s a technique that can bring an extra layer to a story, playing with time or meta fiction. But it can also be used as an obnoxious crutch, allowing writers an easy way to dump exposition. With one decision, a good story can be reduced to a dull heap of “tell-don’t-show.”
Unfortunately, Ang Lee’s latest film, the potentially great Life of Pi, falls victim to this cruel literary device. Based off of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, Life of Pi tells the story of a young man, the irrationally named Pi (short for Piscine), who finds himself lost at sea with a tiger after a tragic shipwreck (Like a cross between Cast Away and We Bought a Zoo). But here’s what’s tricky from a screenwriter’s perspective; the story is told in the first-person through an older Pi. One of the challenges of adapting a novel to the big screen is finding a way to represent internalized thought. Usually, this leads to boatloads of narration.
But writer David Magee goes one step further. Rather than simply include a voice-over, Magee sets up a frame story in which Pi relays his tale to a Canadian, Bon Iver-looking novelist who’s out of inspiration. At its best, the set-up is boring. At its worst, unbearable.
The idea isn’t inherently terrible. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. In large part, Life of Pi is about storytelling, so bringing in a writer only pushes that idea further. But it’s an unnecessary push, piling meta on top of meta with no added effect. Instead, the audience is left with bookends that derail the central story in different ways.
First, there’s the problem of act one. Pi uses this time to set the story up for Bon Iver (yes, the novelist will henceforth be referred to as Bon Iver, because he’s not enough of a character to earn his proper name), telling him about his unusual childhood. There’s compelling character building in these tales, but Magee insists that the images are incapable of speaking for themselves. Rather than learn about Pi’s relationship with religion through the scenes, older Pi talks over them, directly explaining his childhood philosophies.
“But wait!” you might ask, “If the novel does it, why can’t the film?” Because films and novels are different mediums. Novels are about the written word, so it makes sense for a character to explain his feelings in a first-person novel. These are internal thoughts that the reader gets to pop in to. Films, on the other hand, have the luxury of physical images. While novels can produce plenty of mental imagery, having a picture in front of you is simply a different way to experience a story. It allows filmmakers to load frames with symbols and meaning that a viewer can understand through the power of visual language.
Ang Lee, as opposed to Magee, seems to understand that. Once the first act concludes and Pi’s voice-over dissipates, the film recovers strong. The meditative shots of Pi floating on a massive, empty sea are often breathtaking, beautifully communicating his mental state as the days go on. With only one human being on screen for a large portion of the runtime, Lee understands that powerful visuals are crucial to keeping the story afloat. He uses everything at his disposal, including impressive 3D, to put the viewer in Pi’s head.
The rich imagery speeds viewers towards what would be an impactful emotional reveal. That is, until Bon Iver brings things to a screeching halt. The story’s conclusion all revolves around simple symbolism; it’s easy enough for a reasonably intelligent person to understand without being yawningly obvious. But Magee doesn’t seem to have faith in your average viewer’s brain. So rather than letting the symbols unfold naturally, he lets his frame do the dirty work. Bon Iver ruins a perfectly effective moment by saying “So A is B, and X is Y.” By laying everything out flat, the loaded ending is delivered like an M Night Shyamalan plot twist. And with a half-hearted “a-ha,” an almost great film shamefully sinks into a vast ocean of forgotten Oscar bait.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe most viewers wouldn’t have decoded the ending quickly enough, making Life of Pi seem like a pointless 2-hour affair. Maybe clarity is important to making stories accessible to a wide range of people. Early on in the film, Pi explains that his father named him Piscine after a French swimming pool with the clearest waters he’s ever swum in. Pi changes his name to one of the most elusive concepts in mathematics. Ultimately, Magee’s script doesn’t leave viewers with a film as mystifying and intriguing as the title Life of Pi suggests. Instead, we’re left with Life of Piscine; a brisk swim in a public pool, complete with a lifeguard ready to pull us out when the water gets too deep.