Life of Pi by Yann Martel, film directed by Ang Lee

This review contains spoilers.

The Novel

Life of Pi is the story of an Indian boy – Pi – who grew up in Pondicherry where his family owned a zoo. From a young age he becomes very interested in religion of all types: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and even atheism. He decides that being agnostic – i.e. not believing in anything – is a cop out. Even atheists believe in science. When Pi’s family closes the zoo and takes a ship across the Pacific Ocean, tragedy strikes. The ship sinks, Pi’s family is lost, and Pi finds himself on a small life raft with a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, an orang-utan, and a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker.

I first read Life of Pi about four years ago over the course of a weekend trip to Japan (I was living in Korea at the time). I remember being caught up in the story, overwhelmed and somewhat dazzled by the descriptions, and confused and almost betrayed by the ending. All of these feelings were pushed together with airplanes and the bullet train and the quiet hotel spaces and bike rides of solo travelling. The book affected me, but it did so in the same way a lot of other things affected me at twenty-four-years-old, single, and living overseas: a rush of experiences and feelings and little time for reflection or understanding.

I came back to Life of Pi in 2012 as a teacher, re-reading the novel with a group of Korean students for a summer intensive class. The second time around Life of Pi really got to me. I was deep inside the book for weeks, highlighting and re-reading and trying to get to the bottom of what it meant. It was a hard book for my students, both emotionally and in terms of reading level. But they – along with me – became deeply involved in the story, and in the ideas of Truth and Reality the book brings up. Upon reaching Life of Pi’s controversial ending I found myself having a sort of existential crisis. When is it okay to deceive yourself? I wondered. Is it ever okay? Even if knowing the Truth brings only pain, even if the lie doesn’t hurt, even then is there something just fundamentally wrong with lying to yourself? These questions erupted into an argument one night between some writer-friends of mine in a little brewery in Noksapyeong, Seoul. Half of us argued that the ending of Life of Pi was awful, and that it was always wrong to lie to yourself. The other half insisted that sometimes self-deception is necessary; that it keeps us going.

For a long while I sided vehemently with the first opinion. But as I got deeper and deeper into the book I realised that creating stories – lying – is something humans have always done, and always will do. This is the way we give meaning to our lives, the way we understand and cope with horrible, inherently meaningless events and go on. Of course, some kinds of self-deception are harmful to us and to other people. But the kinds of stories that give us hope, that make us stronger, kinder, better people – those kinds of stories, those kinds of lies, are completely necessary. We are not animals – we have the capacity to analyse events, and when we find them to be meaningless we can despair. Or we can give them our own meaning. As my boyfriend pointed out, reality is not ignored in Life of Pi. If it were, the second, ‘real’ story would not have been told at all. The story about the tiger is there to help us understand reality, not to replace it. It serves almost the same function as a metaphor – that is, it helps us understand something that is difficult to comprehend. Without reality a metaphor is empty, and without the metaphor reality is meaningless, so both are necessary. Perhaps what makes a really great work of art (like Life of Pi) is the ability to balance obscurity (metaphor) and clarity (reality) so that both serve each other equally.

The Film

Because I loved this book so much and was so affected by it I felt cheated by the film version, released in 2012 and directed by Ang Lee. It felt way too expository: telling a good story got lost in telling a big story. The CGI animals and the spectacular shipwreck were colourful and amazing, but telling an artful story got lost in their wake. I realise a lot of the book had to be explained for people who hadn’t read it, but I think it is the responsibility of a film to tell a story in a filmic way, in a way that makes the best use of the art form. Thoughts work in a book – they don’t work (at least not to the same degree) on film. Even turned into dialogue, thoughts feel way too much like exposition. An example – in the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding the character Simon has a conversation, in his mind, with a pig’s head. It is a pivotal moment in the story, where Simon realises ‘the beast’ (evil) on the island is really the children themselves. In the 1963 film version directed by Peter Brook there is no dialogue or voiceover used to create this scene. Instead, the film uses its own strengths as a medium to make the idea clear: sight and sound. Extreme close-ups of Simon’s face, and of the head; we go right inside the pig’s mouth. These close-ups coupled with the deafening sound of the flies create an effect that is intense, but subtle. It doesn’t patronise the audience by explaining, but trusts them to be smart enough to put the pieces together (pieces that the previous scenes of the film have already laid out) and understand what Simon does.

I definitely felt patronised by the film version of Life of Pi. There were so many scenes where events were simply explained, told when they could have so easily and beautifully been shown. I felt like Ang Lee as a director did nothing to add to the theme of the story through film, to add a deeper layer of meaning to each scene. Yes, the effects were great but the shipwreck and the fierceness of the tiger are not what people – in my experience – really love about the book.  People get attached to the ideas in the story – ideas of Truth and Reality, and survival. And Ang Lee didn’t give his own take on those ideas in filmic form. The context of the story was put on film. The subtext wasn’t. I couldn’t believe that Ang Lee won the Oscar for best director for this film. I’m no expert, but I’m fairly certain it’s not the director’s job to create the CGI effects, and those (as far as I’m concerned) were the film’s only redeeming feature.

After reading the book I agonised over the ending for a long time; thought and dreamed and discussed and argued about it. In the book the ending is startling, confusing, and difficult. In the film version, however, there is no room for ambiguity, for coming to your own idea of what the ending means. There is just a mention of god, and then that horrible cheesy smile from the actor playing the writer that says “Oh, I get it”, and all is well and tied up and easy. This book that I loved and that made me (and so many others) think has become a cheesy adventure full of fancy effects and easy answers. Thumbs down.

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