I have finally, finally, seen the film ‘Life of Pi.’ I have wanted to see it in its glory ever since I read the novel nearly six years ago. I have raved over this book, adored it, and harassed my English teacher into letting me include it in an A-Level essay. The pinnacle of all this was sending the essay to the author Yann Martel and receiving a personal email in reply.
Anyone who loves a book so much is naturally apprehensive about seeing it translated to a different kind of medium: the cinema screen. If the director botches it, the likelihood is that you come away feeling personally betrayed. In the case of “Eragon,” I fled feeling as though I had been kicked in the teeth. No such feeling in this case. The film was a dazzling piece of cinema, a shining star that dug into extra layers of interpretation and discovered even further meaning that I could not have thought possible.
The plot: Pi (Piscine Molitor Patel) lives in India, within a family zoo owned by his father. When the family encounters political troubles, Father decides to uproot his wife and two sons to Canada (producing a wonderful line that I am glad was kept in: ‘We’ll sail like Columbus!” “But he was hoping to find India!” bursts out a sullen Pi.) In the midst of the ocean, and the first of the incredible storm scenes, the ship carrying the family (and the zoo) sinks. Pi is the sole human survivor and finds himself on a lifeboat alongside a few surviving animals: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The task of staying alive at sea and facing down two carnivorous beasts begins.
Director Ang Lee perfectly captures the essence of despair, rage and desperate hope of the young Pi (rising star Suraj Sharma) stranded alone in the lifeboat. I am sure it would be tricky enough attempting to keep audiences’ interest for two hours with the endless lifeboat scenes, but he manages it, switching at critical moments to the older Pi, telling his narrative to a writer whom, at least in the novel, we are led to believe is Yann Martel himself – a perfectly cast Rafe Spall. Spall shows the appropriate blend of curiosity, sympathy and enthralment at Pi’s predicament.
Through natural selection, Pi and the tiger become the only two beings left on the lifeboat. Staying alive at sea is hard enough, but you could feel the extra trepidation and doubt of survival as Richard Parker and Pi enter into a battle of wills to compete against one another for territory and food. Eventually, an uneasy truce is called and the next stage of the journey suddenly bursts on the viewer as Pi discovers a lush island of vegetation, armed with its own band of adorable meerkats. But circumstances force the two travellers onwards to find land. Once they do, Pi finds that the insurance investigators don’t believe a word of his tale about what had taken place aboard the lifeboat.
So he changes his story for them; a tale of brutal, bloodthirsty survival and humans turning animal-like in an attempt to survive. How I wish more prominence had been placed on this part of the film, instead of the twenty minutes given instead to the three religions Pi adopts near the beginning. We understand that faith is extremely important to Pi, and Yann Martel makes sure we know it is what sustains him in the lifeboat. But why was so much time spent building this up when it is only referred to once by Pi later at sea? The final fifteen minutes of the film is what ought to be a significant and vital conclusion; sadly, I feel it flopped. Pi rattles through his second story so abruptly, there is scarcely time to understand exactly what it contributes and it is too easy to dismiss if you have not read the book and think it bears no relevance to anything that has just gone before it. There is nothing hinting about the importance of stories, interpretation and faith – a huge integral point made within the novel and within this second story. The ‘film’ Pi never passionately hammers home these arguments as his written counterpart does. These final few scenes were almost an afterthought. I suppose what might have helped and reminded the audience visually could be that, as Pi was recounting each event (the cook killing the sailor, Pi’s mother defending Pi, Pi slaying the cook,) there ought to have been a flashback of each allegorical animal in the first story performing these deeds. As it is a film, this medium and these tools should have had better use made of them.
Onto Richard Parker, the tiger that has been seen glowering down from advertising film posters. It is no secret by now that Pi adopts the tiger persona in his first story and reveals ‘his’ truth: that in reality, he was the only being on the lifeboat – there was no tiger. When you flip to certain scenes in your mind, and relive Richard Parker’s rage on the lifeboat, you may get a sudden chill of realisation: “That’s Pi. That is Pi as he was, with his animalistic side, isolated and furious at his situation and his master struggle with the ‘tiger’ part of himself.” On an interesting side-note, the real tiger in the zoo, the true Richard Parker who was supposedly drowned along with everyone else in the shipwreck, was named Thirsty as a cub. An early sign in the film that is quite hard to catch shows a small Pi drinking from a font, and a priest remarks “You must be thirsty.” Ha! Pi is Thirsty; Pi is the tiger. A deliberate ploy by the writers? I like to think so.
If we are to believe Pi’s second story, then the implications of just what we may have to go through in order to keep hold of our human side rather than our bestial side in desperate circumstances are horrifying. The direction of the “first” story is so well done that we can easily believe Pi displayed animalistic tendencies as Richard Parker did: eating rats and killing fish despite his vegetarian status. One suggestion is that when he discovers teeth on the Meerkat Island in the “first” story, that was Pi witnessing the remains of the corpses in the “second” and he has had to resort to cannibalism. (I also wonder if the meerkats, teeming in their thousands, represent maggots swarming as the cargo on the lifeboat disintegrates). After realising how bestial he has become, Pi sheds his wild tiger side. As the “tiger” leaves him without a farewell, Pi dissolves in tears on reaching land, much like the boys in “Lord of the Flies” as they confront what their savagery has turned them into.
Full credit to the film-makers for producing many more findings than you can also continue to uncover in the novel if you look hard enough. You can see this film without having read the book but I urge to read it. The film itself was a beautifully shot and crafted project. Ultimately, its message and that of the book is not about worrying over which story is “true,” as there are inconsistencies in both. It is a message about faith, acceptance and why people choose to believe what they do. (Unfortunately, given how the film treats the telling of the second story, this diminishes a little.) Which version we choose or prefer to believe is up to us, and ultimately reflects as much on us as the story. Each adds value, separately and together and they are well worth delving into if you have not already.