November 16, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

Like Millions of other readers, filmmaker Ang Lee got reeled in by the central riddle of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi: How did a soulful 16-year-old boy (a vegetarian, even) survive for months at sea while sharing a 26-foot lifeboat with a snarling (and nonvegetarian) Bengal tiger? The novel captivated the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain, but ultimately he closed the hardcover with frustration. ”I knew this was a book that would be impossible to film,” says Lee. ”The book haunted me. And that’s when I started thinking about 3-D. If I add another dimension, maybe it’s possible? It was a silly thought, maybe, but I followed it.”

After four years, that path reaches its destination with the Nov. 21 release of Life of Pi as, of all things, a $100 million 3-D art-house film. Like Martin Scorsese with last year’s Hugo and Baz Luhrmann with next year’s The Great Gatsby, Lee is part of an auteur movement looking to use 3-D technology to deliver new depth to their silver-screen canvas instead of just in-your-face gimmickry.

Some early filmgoers are already suggesting that Life of Pi (rated PG) may join Avatar as a milestone in 3-D filmmaking. These fans include that sci-fi blockbuster’s director, James Cameron. ”It’s an amazing film,” he says of Lee’s new drama. ”For one thing, it’s consummately beautiful work and shot in native 3-D in a way that shows phenomenal inventiveness. And look what it represents as far as a paradigm shift…. It’s not a superhero movie, it’s not a sleek action spectacle — it’s a spiritual story.”

It’s been three years since the release of Avatar, but that pioneering 3-D epic’s box office haul ($2.8 billion worldwide) still reverberates. The 2012 theatrical slate features more than 40 movies shot in stereoscopic 3-D or converted to the format in postproduction. Most, as Cameron notes, are youth-skewing popcorn films such as The Avengers, Brave, and Men in Black 3 or F/X-heavy projects like Cameron’s own Titanic (rereleased in April after an $18 million 3-D conversion) and Ridley Scott’s off-planet thriller Prometheus. ”I’ll never work without 3-D again, even for small dialogue scenes,” Scott told fans this past summer at Comic-Con International in San Diego. ”I love the whole process.”

Dialogue scenes? That may sound off-the-wall to moviegoers who expect wide-screen spectacle when they’re asked to pay extra for the privilege of wearing 3-D glasses. But Luhrmann, chatting about The Great Gatsby at a Las Vegas consumer electronics show last year, said 3-D’s great value may be bringing audiences into the narrative, not just lifting the action off the screen. ”The story of Gatsby is about looking in the distance to what you want, the coveting and desire of something and what happens when people get or don’t get the thing they covet,” the director said of his F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, due in theaters this May. ”The depth and the distance of 3-D, I hope, can be used for storytelling in a powerful way that you feel more.”

But studios don’t always feel the urge to greenlight 3-D films that don’t have an obvious wide commercial appeal. Consider Scorsese’s Hugo, which received rave reviews and 11 Oscar nominations (winning five statuettes in technical categories) but was a bruising box office failure: The $156 million production (not counting marketing costs) grossed a mere $186 million worldwide.

Given that 3-D typically adds millions to a film’s budget, it’s no wonder that Twentieth Century Fox was reluctant to sign off on Lee’s plan for a 3-D adaptation of Life of Pi. ”I was very strong with the studio. They didn’t want to do 3-D. They said, ‘It’s a literary property, why do 3-D? It’s too expensive, it’s the wrong audience,”’ says the Taiwanese-born director, who inherited the project after directors such as M. Night Shyamalan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Alfonso Cuarón all reportedly tried and failed to adapt Martel’s beloved 2001 best-seller. ”I told them that, yes, to make Pi in 3-D was a risk, but to make Pi in 2-D was a bigger risk because it’s a bad idea that won’t work.” (In the end, Lee estimates that one quarter of his $100 million budget went to the extra costs of temperamental 3-D cameras and postproduction.)

Lee spent a year and a half in preproduction so he could better compose shots to maximize the power of the 3-D format. He creates a mysterious sea with iridescent life and a breaching whale that lands like a thunderclap; he pulls the bars of a tiger cage into the theater space to put the audience a whisker away from the majestic menace; and he veers toward the psychedelic by revealing a spiral universe in the mouth of young Krishna. ”A 3-D image seems to exist in space with seemingly real depth, but we cannot touch it,” says Lee. ”As you learn about [the technology] and try things out, you come to see it as changing film expression, and in an artistic way.”

Life of Pi is already generating Oscar buzz, but the film’s box office may determine whether studios will take a chance on other wild-card 3-D projects in the future. Cameron is galled by film executives who insist that the cinematic world remain flat even if the audience lives in three dimensions. ”Hollywood should see what Ang Lee has done,” he says, ”and they should be on 3-D like seagulls on a french fry.”

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