Life of Pi

I started my own personal Oscar season this weekend by watching Life of Pi which is nominated for 11 awards, most notably Best Picture and Best Director 1. If I’m completely honest I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing this, and when it was announced that it had been nominated for so many awards I was kind of just resigned to “having to” watch it. So I’m delighted to say that I actually really enjoyed it.

As you already know if you’ve seen the trailer, the film is visually stunning. Take a frame at random and stick it on the wall and you’ve got a wonderful piece of art. That much I expected going in, and it really does hold up throughout. I was particularly fond of the opening titles, which overlaid some beautiful typography on top of some shots of the Indian zoo in which the story (and the titular Pi’s life) begins. Having seen very few nominees so far it’s hard to call any of the awards, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this winning for Visual Effects or Production Design2.

Life of Pi - Richard Parker

Based as it is on a Booker Prize-winning novel I had some concern that it would be a bit inaccessible, but I was happy to be proved entirely wrong on that count. No doubt it’s chock full of clever literary themes and allusions and allegories and all the rest, but it doesn’t forget to be compelling, engaging, and frequently very funny.

One aspect that particularly interested me was the question of whether or not it’s a religious story. Superficially you would probably assume it is, but I’m going to argue that if anything it’s the opposite. The whole work is structured in a flashback style, with a middle-aged Indian man (the eponymous Pi) telling the story of his youth to a house guest, a writer who wants to turn the tale into a book. Pi opens with the claim that his story will make his guest believe in God. There’s no argument about whether Pi is religious; he follows three major religions to varying degrees. But whether the story itself encourages a religious world view is more up for debate. I’m afraid my explanation of why I think it isn’t a religious story will contain (mild) spoilers, so don’t read on if that concerns you. But I hope you’ll come back and finish reading once you’ve seen the film.

Life of Pi - Whale

OK, if you’re reading this I assume you’ve either read the book3, seen the film, or don’t mind slight spoilers.

After finishing his fantastic tale of shipwreck, survival and eventual rescue, Pi describes a visit from some men who try to determine what really happened to cause Pi’s ship to sink. The men didn’t believe the story about a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger. They didn’t believe in a carnivorous island, or all of the other wondrous things that Pi encountered on the ocean. So he told them (and tells his guest) a second story, one with no animals or exotic experiences, but which features more survivors of the initial accident who all eventually die in various ways. The guest (and I would guess most audiences) notices that the second story is very similar to the first, with each person in one replaced by an exotic animal in the other. Pi acknowledges the similarity and points out the major features that the stories share: that in both stories he loses his family, and suffers tremendous hardship, but eventually survives. Then he asks, “which story do you prefer?” With nothing of substance to distinguish the two sets of events, the guest decides he prefers the story with the animals. “And so it is with God,” responds Pi.

Now, I can think of any number of ways you might choose to interpret this line — it’s a very thought-provoking comment — but I’ll describe my chosen interpretation. Clearly the animal story is intended to represent the universe with a God, and the other story is the universe without God. I think it’s also very easy to interpret the film as suggesting that the non-animal story is in fact the true story of what happened to Pi. But as he suggests, whether you choose to believe the story with the animals or the story without, the significant human elements are ultimately the same. I think Pi’s intended meaning (if not Martel’s) is, all things being equal, why not choose to believe in the universe with God in it? But the meaning I take from it is this: there’s no observable difference between the God-ful universe and the Godless one; the choice to believe in God is a choice of one story over the other on aesthetic grounds, rather than any kind of evaluation of the facts. As amazing as Pi’s time with the tiger Richard Parker sounds, it didn’t happen.

What do you think?

  1. I had planned to see The Master the previous weekend but missed it due to scheduling difficulties. Unfortunately there appear to be no decent London cinemas still showing it, at least at times that work for me.
  2. Though I’d be sad to see The Hobbit miss out on either of these.
  3. I haven’t read it, but I assume the bit’s of the film I’m going to talk about came from the original.

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