Which story do you prefer?: Ang Lee’s interpretation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

By Daniel Garrett

Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, and Rafe Spall
Haishang Films/Gil Netter Production
Fox 2000 Pictures, 2012

The colorful, playful, and spiritual Ang Lee film Life of Pi, with a screenplay by Dave Magee based on a book by Yann Martel, with its central character an Indian boy who survives a storm at sea and shipwreck, is a fable of curiosity, faith, knowledge, catastrophe, struggle, survival, and salvation; and it is a matter of interpretation.  What is the true story of the boy’s faith and his survival?  A writer meets the boy after he has grown up and become a professor and husband and father, and asks to hear the man’s story, and the survivor tells it—and we in the film audience see it.  It is an engaging, imaginative, and persuasive story of strange wonders.

Life of Pi is, after Sense & Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain, more proof of cinema artist Ang Lee’s curiosity, humanity, and versatility: the film, full of expressive faces, and the strange wonders of nature, imagination, and life, recounts the story an Indian professor in Canada tells to a Canadian writer who has lived in India, an encounter of survivor and writer recommended by the professor’s uncle; and the tale hardly could be more unique and yet it is difficult to think of who would not find it entertaining.  The early scenes are more than prologue: they create a believable, instructive world for the growth of an inquisitive and sensitive mind: the boy’s parents are strong, smart people who insist on his knowing the world but also allow him his own interests.  The boy’s father is a man of science, who advises against religion, but his mother cherishes religion as a link to her personal past: she says that science explains what is out there, in the world, and religion explains what is inside, the human spirit; and both parents agree that thinking before believing is important.  The boy Piscine, named after a French swimming pool with pristine water, claims the name Pi and demonstrates a mathematical formula to give it ballast, but Pi is very interested in spirituality, and has accepted different aspects of the world’s great religions: he believes in divinity in all its manifestations.  After the boy gets too close to a new tiger in the family’s zoo, the father sacrifices a live goat to the tiger to demonstrate how ferocious the beast is.  The boy had said that “Animals have souls—I have seen it in their eyes,” but his father rejected that affirmation, saying Pi only saw his own reflection in the tiger’s eyes.  The sacrifice of the goat is disillusioning, and soon the boy is reading Dostoevsky and Camus—but Pi still finds loveliness in the world, especially when he meets a girl dancer.  Things change in the family’s circumstances and they decide to move from India to the west; and on a Japanese freight ship, they bring their animals with them for sale, but there is a late night storm and the ship sinks.  Pi, in bed and hearing the beginning of the storm, goes out to see the lightening; and, as he is on deck rather than below when the flooding of the ship begins, his curiosity saves him.  Amid the fury of the storm, the boy submits to his god, the first of several affirmations of divinity’s power.  There are only a few survivors of the shipwreck, the spiritual boy among them.  Are the ship’s survivors animals or people?  The tale the professor first offers is fantastic, about how a tiger and a few animals (giraffe, hyena, monkey) survive on a small lifeboat, until it is only the boy and tiger remaining—and, after some tension, begin to coexist.  Pi and the tiger contend over space and look for food, and at one point the lifeboat is pelted by flying fish.  Pi attempts to train the tiger; and, finally, each accepts the other’s presence.  However, the second story Pi tells, an alternative to the one with the tiger, allows for the immediate but not lasting survival of Pi’s mother, and a savage cook, and a kind but injured Japanese Buddhist, as well as Pi—with the evil of one man leading to further evil.  The threats of the sea and the search for food and determination to survive until rescue or land are the mundane aspects of what is an amazing tale of adventure and acceptance and faith, and one of the most beauteous films ever made.  It is a film that accepts loneliness and reverie and strangeness as facts—and makes plain that the existence of god is a more attractive possibility than not.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.