I just finished watching Life of Pi last night, and I’m absolutely staggered. Stunned. But not by the special effects, but rather the story, most particularly the ending. Spoilers follow.
For starters, props for this post, that got me thinking in interesting directions. (There’s also a recap of the plot and ending here, which I won’t repeat.
OK, the analogy between the two is spelled out in the movie itself. The hyena is the cook, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is the sailor, and Richard Parker is Pi. (Or is he?) I’m a little saddened that so many viewers (including myself) immediately jumped to the all-too-easy conclusion that the realistic version is what really happened, and that the tiger etc. is an invention of Pi’s to make his ordeal easier to deal with. In our defense, it’s the logical conclusion human nature gives us.
Here the frame of the story takes center stage. The Writer character was promised a story that would make him believe in God right from the beginning. And in the end, both the writer and even the insurance folks choose the more entertaining and slightly less horrifying version with the animals.
The parable between the two versions of the story and the two versions of life and the connection to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam (among others) as being humanity’s way of coping with the horrors of life is evident. (The parallels, by the way between Pi’s pre-voyage quest to believe in many different faces even in the face of universal opposition - and between the story elements that comes from these different faiths: an island that looks from a distance like Vishnu in the sea of, the many times Pi is shown with dirt in his mouth like the Krishna story, and the visions of entire universes he sees in the ocean. All this is from the web site listed above. There are some additional theories about the tiger isn’t Pi at all in the animal story, but God. The scene where the tiger leaves a long trail of footsteps in the sand, then leaves without looking back, and yet is never really absent from Pi’s life, generates some serious thought and emotion. Or do Pi and the tiger represent the two warring nature of Pi himself?
But I think there’s more to it than that. Joseph Campbell said, “Myths are stories that are so true, that it doesn't matter whether they actually happened that way or not. They're so true that they have happened more than once." I think about this, and the frame in Life of Pi, and I think that perhaps it’s not choosing between the two stories at all, but seeing the truth that lies in each of them. At one level, it’s hard to even decide why the differences should matter so much. If his mother was stabbed instead of drowned, and the zebra drowned instead of eaten, how much does that change his experience? If the many things that Pi had to kill to survive include the cook, how much does that matter to the cook? How much more of a harrowing experience is one story over the other?
Except it’s really about faith. While I’m not an active member of any faith, I’ve always admired it and characters of faith crop up constantly in my fiction. I’m fascinated with it. My gut instinct is that Pi - who embraced Christianity, Hindi and Islam concurrently, would say that looking at things properly takes the urgency out of deciding which story in the Life of Pi is true. A statement that goes double for how you and I walk through this world. I don’t think the movie’s quest is really to establish one version of the story (or the question of religion) at all, but to just engage the viewer in this profoundly important question. Pi goes as much to say that it is the asking of questions that becomes more important than the definitive answers. Another added facet is how this parable was viewed by different cultures around globe, something Ang Lee speaks to in this interview:
A note on the lovely CGI. I found it gorgeous, but not entirely convincing. Meaning I adored the tiger pouncing and running off when Pi tried to feed it meat in the beginning of the movie, but I think that it did not entirely look like a real tiger, but something faster and more elemental. A tiger filled with God, if you will. Something with the whiff of unreality or dream, if you prefer. I think this must have been deliberate and I’m in awe of the layers to this movie.
So while I’m enamored of the lovely story frame, the lavish symbols and the constant connections between his life before and after the shipwreck, it’s the way this movie has made me examine the way I think of regard my world outside of the movie that has really captured me. Food for thought, especially in regard to my current work-in-progress.
I think one of the reasons that Fantasy calls to me is its constant use of power, epic symbols. Trying to make your fantasy story about something that echoes inside of the modern reader is critical, without leading them directly to your version of some of Campbell’s truths. If you just say a thing like, “Death really sucks” it doesn’t have much weight, regardless of it being true. Heinrich Zimmer said that "The best things can't be told." I think one of the most exciting uses of fantasy in deft hands, is to point us at the truth, for all that its cloaked in wonder. Life of Pi does that admirably. Hopefully, by picking at and dismantling these ideas enough, I can too.