Although it received 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture, Life of Pi has attracted much attention outside the Screen Actors Guild, given its philosophical and religious underpinnings. Adapted for the screen from Yann Martel’s novel, the movie does not drown out these themes with its remarkable cinematography and special effects.
[Before you read any farther, this article necessarily contains spoilers, so you may want to postpone reading it if you plan to see the movie.]
Martel positions his story at the outset in the “Author’s Note,” as an elderly man reports to a Martel-like author, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” The man encourages the author character to find an Indian living in Canada to get the details of the remarkable story.
Piscine Molitor Patel, who renamed himself Pi, possesses a special affinity for religion, which his native Hinduism does not fully satisfy. At 14 he is introduced to Christianity and Islam and discovers assistance from all three religions in his sincere desire “to love God.” He gets no support at home where his father denounces religion in favor of the secular progress of the New India, and his mother has abandoned Hinduism.
Pi’s father, a zookeeper, decides that he must move his family to Canada, along with the animals he cannot sell before his departure. On a Japanese freighter they encounter a severe storm that sinks their ship. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra (who broke his leg jumping into the boat), an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger who bears the name Richard Parker. The hyena quickly takes advantage of the disabled zebra and eventually kills the orangutan, but Richard Parker suddenly bursts out from under the canopy draped over half of the boat and dispenses with the hyena’s cruelty.
For 227 days Pi manages to coexist with Richard Parker, keeping both of them alive. He finds ways to net fish and collect rain water. He constructs a raft out of oars. life jackets and other materials to keep a safe distance from the tiger while the tiger is sidelined by seasickness. Through some innovative techniques, Pi conditions Richard Parker to accept him as a companion in their desperate pursuit of survival.
With strength and life nearly drained from both of them, Pi sees land and somehow drags the boat onto a beach in Mexico. In a dazed stupor he watches Richard Parker jump over him onto the beach and walk into the nearby foliage, never to be seen again. Some men find Pi unconscious on the beach and take him to the hospital.
While recovering in the hospital, two Japanese men visit him, government investigators trying to determine the cause of the ship’s sinking. Pi relates his incredible story to the two men, who respond in utter disbelief. Mr. Okamoto appeals to science and reason in dismissing Pi’s story, but Pi effectively counters each argument. Pi asks them if they liked his story and they admit that they liked it, but that did not mean they believed it. Mr. Okamoto again asks Pi to tell him what really happened, “the straight facts,” “words that do no contradict reality.”
Pi finally acquiesces to his request. “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality. You want a story without animals.”
So Pi offers a different account of his amazing experience. He retells the events with a sailor, who broke his leg in a fall, the ship’s cook and his mother in the lifeboat. The story becomes gruesome as the cook kills the sailor to use his flesh for fish bait. Pi’s mother soon discovers the cook was also secretly consuming more than his share of the emergency rations on the boat. In a fit of righteous indignation she slapped the cook. Two days later she confronted the cook when she discovers him eating the sailor’s flesh. Eventually the cook killed his mother and days later, Pi killed the cook.
At the conclusion, Pi asks the investigators, “Is that better? Are there any parts you find hard to believe? Anything you’d like me to change?” Mr. Okamoto asked if the cook had any explanation for the sinking of the ship. When Pi could offer no additional information to explain why the ship sank, the men conceded that he would be of no help in the purpose of their investigation.
Before they leave, Pi asks them, “… 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?” Both men agree that they think the story with animals is the better story. Pi replies, “And so it goes with God.”
Florence Stratton wrote a careful analysis of Martel’s novel, “Hollow at the core”: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. She argues, “He is not out to prove the existence of God, but rather to justify a belief in God’s existence. Martel’s position is a post-modernist one, from the perspective of which God’s existence has the same status in relation to truth and reality as Pi’s experience of shipwreck. Agnostics, Pi tells us, ‘lack imagination and miss the better story’ (70). God’s existence, in other words, is a matter neither of fact nor of faith, but rather is a better story than the one told by those who doubt or deny God’s existence.”
In an interview with Ray Suarez in the Online NewsHour, Martel says, “… my novel is about the line between fiction and fact. It is about how we interpret reality, right? Reality isn’t just out there; it’s how we interpret it. And to me, that’s what religion is about, isn’t it? It’s an interpretation of reality.”
Clearly there is more to this story than a mere fantasy adventure. We will explore the religious/philosophical theme of Life of Pi in my next blog.