Hollywood is divided. One half is predicting that the 2013 award season will be the Year of the Tiger. Thanks to a movie that, for about half its length of 127 minutes, features only a young unknown actor, an animated Bengal tiger and a lifeboat adrift on the sea.

Shades of Cast Away and Tom Hanks’ volleyball? No, this is an entirely different beast. And a difficult one to tame, too: Yann Martel’s eponymous international best-seller is an elemental tale that uses surreally-tinged fantasy to work around deeply philosophical questions. Not an easy book to film, but if you’ve seen Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’ll understand why he’s managed to hit the right note.

Admirers are lapsing into superlatives like ‘exquisite’ and ‘masterly’ over the breathtakingly imaginative manner in which Lee has used 3D technology to conjure up a world of magical realism. Which brings us to the other — naysaying — half. A film cannot live on its visuals alone, they point out; what about the rest? Part of the problem here is the source material, the book itself, which begins with a near-undeliverable promise: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

The tale is that of Pi Patel, short for Piscine Molitor Patel, son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry. Pi grows up with two useful qualities: an understanding of animal psychology and a familiarity with the beliefs of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.

When the Patel family decides to relocate to Canada for political reasons, they do so with many of their animals. But they hit a storm, after which Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a spotted hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon, it’s down to Pi and Parker and the boy survives 227 days on the sea with the tiger before he’s rescued. Into this narrative are woven in strands of co-existence, spirituality and keeping the faith in the broadest sense.

The film has, for obvious reasons, sparked off excitement in India, and a number of Indians in the cast has added to that mood. While first-timer Suraj Sharma plays the teenage Pi and Irrfan Khan his middle-aged avatar, Tabu plays Pi’s mother.

The book, winner of several awards including the 2002 Man Booker, has had near-unanimous acclaim. The movie has not been as fortunate on the film festival circuit; it’s the classic film vs. book syndrome. Everyone agrees that Life of Pi offers an overwhelmingly beautiful visual experience. As for the believing in God bit, that’s a tough and intensely individualistic one. You’ll just have to take your chances with that.

Bottomline: It’s the classic film vs. book syndrome.

Life of Pi

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu

Director: Ang Lee

Releases: November 21

Keywords: Life of PiHollywood