LIFE OF PI
A novel by Yann Martel
A film by Ang Lee (2012, Tawian/USA)
(More than ever, this will contain huge spoilers.)
-1-: In Words
Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi” bears what I consider to be all the hallmarks and clichés of award-winning literature: a protagonist with a gimmicky name; religious overtones and symbolism (mistaking this for automatic poignancy); post-modern usage of and reverence for story-telling (story-telling is magical!); unreliable narrator; magic-realism; throw together and stir in some historical national crisis. At worse, these feel like the tropes of authors with affections of importance and significance whilst feeling a step disconnected from what is authentic. But Martel’s novel is an example of how these tropes can be made to work and is a fascinating and playful confection, setting up a fantastic premise of a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and milking and working the limitations of this scenario for all their worth. How would you survive this scenario?, the book asks, and proceeds to pay great attention as to how our protagonist Pi uses his knowledge, resourcefulness and trial and error to stay alive and fend off the big cat. Martel does not anthropomorphise the tiger – named Richard Parker – but respects the animal for all its primal splendour and terror. By the time the book segues onto the carnivorous island, the sleight-of-hand into more magic-realism is barely jarring due to the lengthy attention paid to detailing already incredible circumstances.
The older Pi, recounting this remarkable tale of survival, says that this is a story that will make the listener believe in God. As a child growing up in India in a zoo, amongst the animal kingdom, Pi is named after the French word for swimming pool, piscine, but abbreviates it to a transcendental number to avoid being mistaken for “pissing”. He trades the crude mispronunciation of his name for something that implies that, well, he is the centre of a watery universe. Pi tries and adopts features of many religions that he becomes fascinated by – a little of this, a little of that – creating in effect his own belief system whilst ignoring the incompatibility and conflicts between any two faiths. When his family is forced to move to Canada – due to national troubles – taking the zoo along with them, the ship is sunk in a storm and only Pi survives, alone with a small menagerie that is quickly reduced to just he and the Bengal tiger. He is indeed strained to his most primitive state, albeit one that calls on his God to guide and save him; but these prayers do not in a way that smother his dilemma and the detail. Keeping from being eaten by Richard Parker becomes his life cause and purpose.
Of course, it is the ending that truly elevates ‘Life or Pi’, for Martel’s work on making the life boat scenario convincing works to distract us from the fact that we are reading a fable. Which version do we wish to believe, Pi asks in conclusion: the one where Richard Parker is the manifestation of his primal, murderous side needed to survive catastrophe, or the prettier version with the animals? And ultimately, does this not cast religion simply as recourse to denial, storytelling and lying in order not to confront our very natures and the truth of things? Does it not cast into light the very brittle nature of the civilised when confronted by nature? In a Godless world where you can pick-and-choose your beliefs and faith, what would Noah do had his Ark been sunk and only he and a few hungry animals were left alive?
Pi’s tale is full of ambiguity. Does it condone lying because storytelling is so “magical”? Or is it a colourful exposure of the fiction of religious fancy? For all its dressing-up in faith, “Life of Pi” never loses sight of the carnivorous, chaotic and arbitrarily cruel inclinations of nature. Its symbolism is far more in the service of the world and psychology around Pi rather than religion. Rather, the key to the novel is surely the fleeting passage where Pi mentions that all animals are a little crazy. Temporary craziness is the key to the novel and religion may certainly be seen as mostly decoration acting like the main attraction.
-2-: In Pictures
Craziness is also the one theme that Ang Lee’s film of the novel does not truly address – screenplay by David Magee. Nevertheless, its symbolism remains intact because it is faithful to Martel’s text. When stranded on the life-boat during the storm, who does Pi see swimming towards him in the manic waves but Richard Parker, the symbol of his pending madness and violence? Pi screams and seemingly fends the tiger off, but the big cat appears again from the depths beneath the tarpaulin at the precise moment that Pi becomes confrontational and murderous. Pi spends his time taming the madness that threatens to consume him, but almost gives in to it during the second storm where he throws open the tarpaulin. And so on. The affection Pi eventually and inevitably has for Richard Parker has great resonance. (But there is a clue that Pi senses he may be losing his mind earlier, for when he swims mid-storm to the cabin to save his family, a zebra swims past him: How would a zebra be come to be there? we briefly think – knowing later that the zebra represents a friendly sailor, this moment nods towards Pi being overwhelmed by tragedy earlier even than Richard Parker's appearance.)
The film is a little softer version of the novel, mostly because the novel is gorier and the ending is perhaps less spelt out. The ambiguity is there almost despite the film being more literal: it is as if Magee’s script takes Pi a little more at face value but Ang Lee isn’t quite buying it. Perhaps this is why Rafe Spall’s writer character seems to embody the film’s weaknesses, as being the journalist that plays into the parlour game of fable-telling (the character acts as the equivalent of those in the audience being distracted by shiny objects). In truth, the lengthy back-story serves well to hint that Pi is in fact a fabulist all along, a bullshitter of the most charming degree. The writer is the sentimental audience, missing Pi’s greater heroism and the true horror of his ordeal by choosing a fancy tale. Nevertheless, Martel’s novel does leave it’s mark in showing how we tend to fall for stories and Lee matches that with a similarly fanciful and beguiling aesthetic.
Visually, the film is a wonder, an extravaganza of physical and computer-generated special effects. The storm sequence is a small masterpiece of action, effects and size; literally awe-inspiring (it is film that really needs to be seen on the big screen). The shot of Pi suspended in the ocean looking at the sunk ship on the seabed below is perhaps the one moment in cinema where I actually wondered if it could be matched by 2D (of course it can, but it is the first time in my cinema-going that I have actually doubted). Indeed, ‘Life of Pi’ is the one 3D film where 3D felt complimentary, and mostly subtle. It is a very bright and colourful film, which helps immensely to combat the light-loss that 3D currently carries; it looks somewhere between splendid animated nature book, state-of-the-art cinematic wonder and Asian kitsch, and it is always surprising, inventive and beautiful.
And the storm sequence is then matched by Richard Parker as a remarkable and convincing special effect. Richard Parker is as much a marvel as “The Lord of the Rings’” Gollum, rendered with convincing physicality and fearsomeness. It is true that so engrossing is the performance of the tiger and Suraj Sharma as Pi that it is easy to forget just what a special effects piece the entire film is. And we are invited in by the warmth of Irrfan Khan as the elder Pi and the vitality of Sharma as the younger, and then to be devastated by Sharma’s near one-take, heart-rending performance where he reveals all from a hospital bed.
But for all this, it is in truth an upsetting tale that has remarkable crossover appeal. I myself am surprised that it has seemingly metamorphosed into an instant family favourite: both times that I saw “Life at Pi” in different towns, the audience was made up of parents and very young kids; there were many children as young as five watching. I would have felt it too distressing at times for younger children, and yet there they were engrossed. As Fox UK boss Cameron Saunders says, with the typical condescension and cynicism of salesmen and businessmen:
“‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was perhaps the closest comp, because we knew it was going to be great filmmaking, run into the awards corridor, have an ethnic slant, and it was a challenging film that could appeal to audiences.”
For me, the trailers for “Life of Pi” were mostly a misrepresentation of the text, focusing on selling it as a boy-and-his-tiger high adventure: “A life of adventure! A life of hope! A life of triumph! A life of Pi!” Hmm, not a life of tragedy, horror and stark survival, then? And a little more apt: “Believe the unbelievable”. Another trailer, which is otherwise mostly a good summary of the film, adds “A life of friendship”. To which I raise an eyebrow and become sniffy. But it really isn’t quite a Disney’s Mowgli tale (and Disney’s Mowgli is not Kipling’s Mowgli) and yet one can see how this pitch would have helped make this a family film, getting an audience to try out something both appealing and testing. Some critics have berated it for being simplistic in its discourse on religion, but it is not that film either; and if it is simplistic in some way, it is still more revealing and insightful about the mechanics of religion than Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” (“Tree of Life” has other virtues, but its smug symbolism are surely only poignant to those satisfied with themselves for identifying them: and for them, at least Pi ends up on a beach in a crucifixion pose).
Just as Martel uses each sentence, Ang Lee uses all tricks and resources of cinema to make us buy into the splendour of storytelling, to fool us into believing that storytelling is perhaps one of the greatest forces of nature of all, if not faith. If it feels soft and superficial to some, making it look like a cosy mainstream adventure yarn, well the film itself is all about deceptive appearances. Indeed, it is a film where, more than most, you can take away from it what you want most to see.
P.S. - Rhythm & Hues, the special-effects company that won an Academy Award for "Life of Pi" has filed for bankruptcy. A bizarre and sorry state of affairs. (Thanks to Steve H for the heads-up.)