As a nod to the narrative of the book-now-a-film I’ll be talking about — Yann Martel-slash-Ang Lee’s Life of Pi — my first entry for 2013 is a bipartite post on two ways in which particularly the recent film can be understood. Those who have read/seen Life of Pi will know what I’m talking about, in giving two versions like this; those who haven’t will probably just think it’s a bit contrived. Actually, those who’ve read/seen it may think it’s contrived. Possibly because it is.
Purrfect (ah, c’mon, it was only a matter of time before the first tiger reference)
Well, not ‘perfect’, exactly, but pretty good. The film of Yann Martel’s 2001 book Life of Pi is an impressive piece of work. The CGI’d animals feel scarily real, the reality of the lead character’s loneliness for the main part of the film is almost saltily tangible, and the 3D opening sequence of riotous colour in the inhabitants of the Patel family’s zoo was enough to make Sir Dave envious. (I don’t normally ‘get’ those Big Blue Animal Planet World 3D extravaganzas — though I know many who do — but the titles of Life of Pi made me want to start an immediate nature documentary marathon.)
One of the reasons the graphics felt so good was because they made sense. We saw the Hobbit film before Christmas, and while that was enjoyable enough, it felt at times (for example in the inexplicable insertion of some sort of conker match between two animatronic mountains, with Martin Freeman and co. swinging back and forth like less infectious versions of those determined bacteria you get on animated bleach adverts) as if the whole 3D-and-CGI thing were being used…well…because Peter Jackson could.
In Life of Pi, on the other hand, it all felt necessary; it felt as if this film really couldn’t have been made 5 years, 3 years, even 18 months ago. So part of the reason it’s taken over a decade to film the book is that it’s taken that long for cinema technology to catch up with the author’s imagination.* Top marks to Ang Lee for a visually brilliant — and, so far as I can remember, pretty narratologically faithful — version of Yann Martel’s work.
Pi in the Sky
So that’s why I thought Life of Pi was great. There’s another story here, though (possibly not, as Pi Patel would have it, a ‘better story’, but I thought I’d put it down anyway). And here my problem is not with Ang Lee — who, as I’ve mentioned, appears to have been largely faithful to Martel’s book — but with the original.
The plot, put very simply, goes something like SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T KNOW this: a young Indian boy, Pi Patel, grows up as something of a free spirit who pursues interests in three major world religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Islam), and whose general sense of spirituality extends to his love for the animals in his family’s zoo, in Pondicherry; the family decide to relocate to Canada, taking the animals with them; there is a shipwreck, and Pi is among a handful of survivors, spending 6 months in a lifeboat drifting across the Pacific before arriving in Mexico; representatives of the Japanese-owned shipping company visit Pi in hospital, keen to know about the circumstances of the wreck, and Pi’s survival; years later, Pi re-tells his story, this time to a writer who visits him in Montreal, where he has settled.
The crux of the narrative is that Pi tells the shipping representatives two stories. In the first, the group of survivors comprises the zoo’s star attraction, a tiger called (brilliantly) Richard Parker, a zebra with a broken leg suffered in the wreck, a vicious hyena, and a female orang-utan. The hyena makes short work of the injured zebra, and also — though he meets with more resistance — the orang. As he is about to spring at Pi, however, he is killed by Richard Parker; the rest of the trip sees Pi and the tiger travelling across the sea together, a story that captivates the writer in Montreal, years later, who serves as a proxy for the viewer in Lee’s film.
The shipping men find this narrative completely unbelievable, however, and are only satisfied when Pi provides them with an alternative version: the young boy is accompanied in the lifeboat by a sailor with a broken leg suffered in the wreck, the brutish ship’s cook, and his own mother. The cook quickly turns to violence and cannibalism, not only insisting that they finish off the sailor and use his flesh for bait, but also feeding rather more than the fishes; when Pi’s mother protests, the cook kills her, too; Pi avenges his mother’s death, killing the cook; the young boy is thus the only survivor. As the Canadian writer, voicing the viewers’/readers’ thoughts, quickly ascertains, the injured zebra, hyena, and orang-utan stand for the injured sailor, cook, and Pi’s mother, respectively, while Pi — killing the cook — is himself represented by the tiger.
So, as well as there being two different stories of the post-shipwreck events, there are two different meta-narratives. On the one hand, Pi’s religious belief sustains him through the experience of losing his family, and gives him the spiritual fortitude to survive months at sea with a tiger. On the other, the zebra/hyena/orang/tiger account is a sort of post-traumatic coping mechanism, and the account of human brutality is what actually happened.
My problem with this is that the two stories don’t fit. Either Pi’s Hindu/Christian/Muslim beliefs give him the strength to deal with life with a tiger, in which case the story of cannibalism and abuse is unnecessary; or the animal story is his way of dealing with what happened with his mother and the cook, in which case the extended treatise about organised religion becomes irrelevant.
(I’ll end, here, for two reasons: not only have I gone on long enough, but also I have a soft spot for any sentence including the words ‘organised religion’ and ‘irrelevant’.)
* I don’t know an awful lot about the nuts and bolts of cinema graphics, technology, and all that. Someone who does, and with whom I’ve had several argu–conversations about the relative worth of movies with a certain…balance between moral, historical, narrative integrity on the one hand and graphical innovation on the other (Exhibit 1: 300), is one of my oldest, best, and weirdest friends; if you’re into that there Twitter lark, follow him: @robwmay.