My story with ‘Life of Pi’ starts with the book, written by Canadian author Yann Martel. I had only heard of it when I bought it, about three years ago… and it was left unopened, until last November, when I heard the movie was coming out.
I set my mind to reading it before watching the movie in order to be able to compare both versions, something I often like to do.
The story: Political upheavals in India drive Pi’s family to sell their zoo and embark on a cargo ship along with the animals in search of a better life in Canada. Midway through the Pacific Ocean, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat. Only he is not alone. A zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger will keep him company on an epic journey which will last for 227 days.
I would like to point out first that the movie is very, very true to the book. Ang Lee is an incredibly talented director. I am a big fan of his earlier work (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense & Sensibility; Brokeback Mountain). And with ‘Life of Pi’, he is at it again with emotional acting and gorgeous, stunning visuals.
The core of the story lies in the last scene. Allow me to summarize briefly Pi’s story first. Beware of spoilers!
Pi is washed ashore and rescued in Mexico. During his stay in the hospital, two insurance agents seek him in order to find an explanation for the sinking. When they do not believe his initial story, Pi gives an alternate, darker version of his adventures. Both stories have the same beginning: the ship sinks; Pi is thrown onto a lifeboat. Both stories converge to the same ending. The mystery lies in between.
The initial story: upon its fall into the lifeboat, the zebra breaks its leg. Pi watches helplessly as the spotted hyena attacks the zebra then the orangutan and devours them, before it is in turn killed by the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. Then begins a long process of tiger-taming, fish-catching and water-harvesting, so that Pi and Richard Parker may co-exist and survive. After months of sailing, both are on the brink of starvation when they stumble upon an island made of trees and edible algae, populated by meerkats. They feast and regain their strength, until Pi discovers that the island is carnivorous. And so the pair sets sail again. As soon as they arrive on the Mexican shore, Richard Parker leaves the lifeboat and disappears into the jungle, with not as much as a glance backwards, while Pi collapses on the beach, heartbroken.
The alternate story: Pi is joined on the lifeboat by his mother, the ship’s cook, and an injured Japanese sailor. The despicable cook, who’s “very resourceful” according to Pi, takes advantage of the sailor’s injury and kills him to use his body as bait. Pi’s mother is revolted and tries to bring the cook back to his senses, but the fear of starvation blinds him and he kills her too. That’s when Pi, out of anger, sadness and in a moment of self-preservation, stabs the cook and ends him.
The link between the two stories is made evident by the writer almost instantly: the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the hyena is the cook, the sailor is the zebra… and Pi is the tiger.
Then, Pi asks the baffled officials a question that puts us all in doubt: “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
Two hundred pages are spent describing the “animal” story in the book. Respectively, 100 minutes of magnificent cinematic beauty bring those pages to life on the silver screen. Yet merely 7 pages (a 5-minute scene – bland, compared to the majestic first part of the movie) narrate the alternate “human” version, a version devoid of humanity. So, which is the true story?
Here lies the only major difference between the novel and the movie:
In the book, Pi appears quite annoyed by the officials who wouldn’t believe his original story, deemed too surreal, although it is definitely much more acceptable than its human counterpart, a tale of dehumanization and utter desperation. He even accuses them of wanting to hear a story they already know, for the sake of having something “believable” to write for their report… whereas in the movie, Pi is on the verge of tears while telling the second version.
This inaccuracy – purposefully made by the director? – leads us to think that the first story is a big allegory of Pi’s real adventure: the tiger is Pi’s inner “savage”, his alter ego, the side of his persona that allowed him to survive; while Pi the boy is the inner human side of him. He was able to preserve his humanity by transforming people into animals, which would explain easily the savagery in reaction to the threat of starvation. His ecumenical religious beliefs left intact, he was able to survive instead of crumbling under the weight of remorse and self-indictment. But we must not forget that the whole point of the story was to make the writer believe in God. During his childhood, Pi spent his days trying to reconcile the difference between religions and faith interpretations. And during his days at sea, these beliefs kept him sane and helped him overcome every difficulty: every moment he spent on that boat was full of colors and beautiful imagery, much like Hinduism; much like Catholicism, the “animal” story shows us how he learns to love and appreciate every facet of his adventure. And finally, much like Islam, his tale is one of a brotherhood, where his companionship helps him stay strong until the very end.
Eventually, the question is left wide open for reader/viewer’s interpretation. What really happened is of little concern. The larger question is a theological one: which story do YOU prefer? Would you rather believe in things that you can sense or see? Or would you take a leap of faith and trust that miracles can happen?