One of the great pleasures of parenting is reading great books to your children. For each of my kids, I read Watership Down when they turned eight. Read all the Harry Potter books aloud. The last book I read to all my kids was Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. They were at the age where coordinating schedules so we could read together was difficult, but my gosh, what a glorious novel, what a wonderful read.
When you love a book, you approach the movie with some trepidation. You think: “Please don’t screw this up.” But Ang Lee’s Life of Pi movie is magnificent, glorious to look at, and as thought provoking as the novel. Of course, to compress a novel down to a two hour movie requires leaving some things out; I missed Pi’s white blindness and his long conversations with the blind man from another boat. But the essence of the novel–the unreliable narrator, the meditations on faith, the boat, the sea, the predator/island, the tiger–it’s all there. When I imagine pressure from the studio to, say, have Pi played by a white kid (“you know, this could be the Justin Bieber vehicle we’ve been waiting for!”) I’m all the more grateful a director of the prestige and calibre and brilliance of Ang Lee took it on.
The story: Pi is Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool in Paris, renamed, by himself, Pi, after being teased in school. An inquisitive and curious young man, devoted to God, fascinated by the religious guises in which He appears, Pi is raised Hindu, and converted to both Christianity and Islam as a young teen. He’s a devout member of all three faiths, untroubled by doctrinal divisions. His father loves science, and Pi doesn’t exclude reason from his meditations. His father also owns and runs a zoo, in the Indian town of Pondicherry where the family lives, and Pi loves the animals there.
An economic downturn, however, forces the family to sell the zoo and move to Canada. En route with their animals, a great storm sinks their ship. Pi is flung aboard a lifeboat, with four companions: a wounded zebra, an elderly female orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. And so Pi is stranded in the Pacific with four uncongenial companions.
The hyena makes short work of the zebra, and after a quick battle, also kills the orangutan. Then Richard Parker disposes of the hyena. Pi realizes he’s next on the tiger’s menu, and escapes to a raft he builds of oars and life jackets. But tigers are strong swimmers; Pi is not safe. He knows enough about zoo animals to train a tiger, to condition it. He can toss the boat, causing sea sickness; can catch fish and keep the tiger fed. Use a freshwater still to keep it hydrated. And in time, Pi and Richard Parker learn to co-exist. They find an island, a strange floating Pacific island, a predatory tangle of seaweed and odd trees, populated by meerkats, safe by day, lethal at night, with freshwater pools that become acidic when the sun goes down. They escape the island too, and finally land ashore in Mexico, Pi collapsing on the beach, watching while Richard Parker, without turning back, disappears into the jungle, in his element again at last.
Pi is played by two child actors for the younger scenes, and by Irrfan Khan as an adult, but Suraj Sharma, making his acting debut, plays the main Pi we see though most of the movie. He’s wonderful, capturing Pi’s religiosity and inventive intelligence with equal success. The tiger is a CSI/Animatronics creation. But the star of the film is the ocean itself, the luminous leaping whale, the underwater fish, the distant horizons and terrifying storms.
The film uses the same framing device as the novel did, as Pi, now middle-aged, tells his story to a writer; the conceit is that it’s Yann Martel. In the earliest interview scenes, Pi tells the writer (Rafe Spall), he will tell a tale that will “make you believe in God.” And in a conventional sense, it’s a movie about a devout kid in desperate straits who prays for deliverance and is, at the end, delivered. But of course, it’s a much stranger novel than that and correspondingly, a much stranger movie.
The unreliable narrator. Meta-fiction: the fictional narrative that knows itself to be fiction, that calls into question its own reality and authenticity and authority. Those tools are used almost theologically by Martel, and also of course by Ang Lee.
Because after Pi is rescued, he’s questioned by representatives of the Japanese shipping company whose ship sank. They want to know if Pi can tell them what went wrong; Pi, who was just a passenger, can’t tell them. But Pi tells them the entire story; the tiger, the floating island and all the rest of it. And of course they don’t believe him. It’s incredible to them, it’s therefore not credible to them. And they ask if there’s a way to tell the story without, well, it including frankly impossible elements.
And Pi retells it, provides a counter-narrative, a subtly different tale. The life boat originally had four human passengers. A cook, Pi’s Mom, a badly injured seaman, and Pi. The cook killed the seaman, cut him into fishing bait, even ate some of his flesh. Pi’s Mom protested, and finally, the cook killed her too. And so Pi killed the cook. And the Japanese engineers get it. The cook is the hyena, the seaman the zebra, Pi’s Mom, the orangutan. And Pi is Richard Parker. The animals are projections of Pi’s imagination. The island’s a mirage, a fantasy. Richard Parker is Pi as predator, Pi as survivor. There never was a real tiger. The Japanese engineers have a story to suit them.
And then the middle-aged Pi looks at the writer and he asks, “so, which is the better story? The one with the tiger, or the one with no tiger?” And the writer admits that the story with the tiger is better. And we catch a glimpse of the report the Japanese engineers wrote, and it seems that they liked the story with the tiger too, enough to put it in their report.
So what really happened? What’s the truth of things? Well, which is the better story? Did Vishnu’s Mom, examining Vishnu after he, as a child, ate some dirt, did she look into his mouth and see the entire universe? Did Mohammed ride the steed Buraq through the night sky to Jerusalem, to lead all the other prophets in prayer, and then ascend to heaven, to speak to Allah Himself? Did God the Father send His son to suffer and die for unworthy mankind? Or, for me, speaking as a Mormon, did an angel visit a New York farm boy and show him plates of gold? What really happened? Can we ever know? Or does contemplating those stories, those narratives, lead us to faith? And isn’t faith greater than, whatever, knowledge, truth, what really happened?
We tell stories about our faith and those stories are preposterous. Really, they are; every religion is built on myths that can sound, to outsiders, ridiculous. As preposterous as a floating deadly island, populated by meerkats, in the Pacific ocean. As preposterous as a kid surviving months alone on a life boat with a tiger. But is there a sense in which stories can be good, can be existentially ‘better’ because they lead us in the direction of faith?
What really happened? Well, what really happened is that Ang Lee made a movie based on a novel. What really happened is that an Indian kid pretended to be on a boat, in the ocean, with a CGI tiger. The real question, though, isn’t what happened. It’s that we hear two stories, a logical one and a magical one, and are asked which one is better? Throughout the movie, Pi insists that he only survived his ordeal because of Richard Parker, that caring for the tiger saved him too. So isn’t the better story the one that saves us?
Another step: Doesn’t Pi itself combine faith and reason; isn’t Pi–the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter–basically infinity, a number that will never resolve? Isn’t a circle a symbol of eternity? Doesn’t thinking about Pi, about that mathematical constant, a way into understanding the mind of God, eternity itself?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright. . . . And we all know that great Blake poem. But even Blake thought Tigers were necessary.
“When the stars threw down their spears,
and water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb, make thee?”
I don’t know. But the film got to me, affected me. It’s a profound and important and gorgeously lovely movie, a film to contemplate, a film to think about. A film that tells the better story.