Films We’ve Watched: Life of Pi

15 Jan

Editor’s Note:  Though no outright spoilers, there is some discussion on the end of the film.  If you have yet to see it or read the book, be forewarned.

I remember the first time I read Life of Pi. I think I was in the sixth grade, and as you can imagine much of that novel’s magic was lost on me. And then I had to read it again in seventh grade. And then again the following year. And far from gaining more from each successive reading and from each English class I was forced to discuss it in, I began to despise Yann Martel’s novel. Indeed, it’s entirely possible I read it again my freshman year in high school and have simply scrubbed the memory away. It was hard to appreciate why teachers kept insisting on reading it. That is where my distaste originated at least. What made this book special, that year after year such emphasis was put on it? And now, nine years since I first cracked open its azure cover, and after watching Ang Lee’s new adaptation, I think I finally get it.

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You have to hand it to Ang Lee, his choice of films is certainly eclectic. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Hulk, and Brokeback Mountain have (mostly) proven he can handle a variety of genres. However, none come close to touching what he has done with Life of Pi. I think it’s fair to bring up Cloud Atlas at this point, another novel that was considered unfilmable, because unlike it, Pi proves that in the right hands anything can take new life on film.

The thing is, Life of Pi is a novel where there are long stretches without much going on. The story follows Pi Patel, who, while emigrating to Canada from India becomes shipwrecked. Consequently he spends much of the book adrift in the Pacific ocean. Although beginning his journey with an orangutan, hyena, and zebra (Pi’s father owned a zoo), by the end of the story it is just him and a fully grown bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

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Outside of Pi’s own story of survival, Martel uses the narrative framing device of an older Pi explaining his tale to a young novelist, with the promise that it will make him believe in God. What makes Pi such an unlikely story to be successfully adapted is that faith and spirituality form the core of the story. It seems to me that belief, faith, the little miracles that can cause such wonder, that these are all immensely difficult to capture on film. And yet Lee has done so with aplomb.

While most of the actors do a serviceable job, with Rafe Spall’s “the Writer” the only really poor performance, it is Suraj Sharma as Pi that is the heart of the film. I can’t imagine a better actor to portray the Hindu-Catholic-Islamic-Indian, a boy of contradiction and faith. While at home in India he is at times cocky and smart, while out in the ocean you can’t help but feel for Pi’s plight. He is hopeless and awed, desperate and resolved. Suraj Sharma perfectly encapsulates Pi’s own growth, and I’d be curious to know what kind of regime he was under while they shot because by the end, when he finally reaches dry land, he is hardly recognizable as the same adolescent who left India nearly a year before.

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Beyond the acting though, Life of Pi is simply gorgeous. Yes, much of what occurs on screen is computer generated, however that should not diminish the message that Lee is attempting to convey. You see Pi’s white lifeboat floating in the sea, the night sky perfectly reflected in the calm water. It looks like heaven. The floating carnivorous island, a colony of jellyfish, even a simple sunset are all brought to life with otherworldly beauty. Which is the point. These things look fantastical, miraculous even, because Pi’s story is fantastical and miraculous. It is literally unbelievable, and by the time you hit the big twist, you aren’t sure what to think.

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The crux of this story emerges as Pi finishes retelling his tale to the Writer. After washing up on a Mexican beach and while recuperating in the hospital, Pi is visited by representatives from the company his ship belonged to. Much like the Writer (and the audience) they cannot believe his story. So he offers another one. There was no Orangutan, Hyena, Zebra, or Tiger. Instead, on the boat, were a Japanese sailor, a French cook, his mother, and him. A parallel version of events unfold with people rather than animals at the center of the drama, and this is the tale that the Japanese investigators find more believable.

It is here that my mind turned to the Steve Toltz novel A Fraction of the Whole. My adolescent self, more preoccupied with when the next Harry Potter would come out then what Life of Pi meant, would have written this ending off. But now, older, better read, I believe I have found my own meaning in this work. Toltz writes: “We have no trouble believing that the worst creature who has done the most harm is a man, [yet] we absolutely cannot believe that the best creature, who tries to inspire imagination, creativity, and empathy, can be one of us. We just don’t think that highly of ourselves, but we happily think that low”. Whenever we are faced with somebody like Hitler per se, an “evil” man, we are nonetheless acknowledging that they are in fact human, that people are capable of great evil. Those that transcend what we believe humanity to be capable of, figures like Buddha or Jesus, we label gods, that there is something otherworldly about them.

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This is the power of Pi’s ending, and something that Lee has captured beautifully on film. The Japanese investigators cannot believe a world of miracles and tigers and floating islands but are all too happy to accept one of murder and survival, of conditions that bring out the worst in people. The Writer, faced with the same choice, refuses to accept that world. His belief in God at the end comes from his rejection of such a dark reality. The world we see, the world created onscreen is absolutely unbelievable. But again, it should be. If that choice is to have any meaning, we have to see what the Writer is willing to accept, that despite the slim possibility that Pi floated on a boat with a tiger named Richard Parker for so many days, that his survival under those conditions seems so miraculous that without acts of God he would not have made it to shore.  This, this reality is chosen over one in which man kills man.

I went in to Life of Pi not expecting much and came out, much like Pi himself, a changed man. The terrific acting and great writing alone make this a marvelous film. But beyond that, Pi is imbued with a sense of wonder and sincerity that seem sorely lacking in theatres these days. As much as I’ve loved dark, brooding films like Looper or The Master this year, not everything in theatres should be full of doom and gloom. Life of Pi  offers a refreshing message, one that manages to speak to our better natures and as a result easily earns its place among this year’s best movies.

– Nico

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