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Life of Pi: How to Spoil a Perfectly Good Story

March 6, 2013
Tiger by Mark Knol

Tiger by Mark Knol (Creative Commons Licence)

Reading Life of Pi a decade ago, I almost gave up several times. But after Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a tiger, I was hooked by the power of the story and the imagination behind it.

Watching the movie echoes this reading experience. The first part drags, but the movie takes off when we get to the lifeboat.

Reading the book, I was held by Martel’s skill in convincingly showing how it is possible to survive 227 days in a lifeboat in the company of a tiger. Rather than fantasy, it’s told in fully realist mode, at least until the floating island appears. Martel uses the lore of lifeboat survival, animal training, territorialism and alpha ranking to show how Pi avoids becoming the tiger’s dinner. Watching the movie, I was mesmerised by Ang Lee’s visual spectacle – 3D computer generated images – and again by the story of Pi and the tiger surviving together.

Then, in both book and film, we collide with the ending.

Despite research showing that reading pleasure is increased by prior knowledge of what happens (see Spoilers Don’t Spoil Anything), many are still enraged by spoilers. Hence a warning for those who have not read the book or seen the movie: I’m about to discuss the ending.

When the investigators questioning Pi do not believe his story, he gives them an alternative version in which he is joined in the lifeboat by humans rather than animals, and brutality and murder ensue. He then asks: Which story do you prefer?

Coming out of nowhere, king-hitting the reader or movie-goer, this is a beautifully realized ending. Martel’s artistry lies in selecting just the right finish for such a reality-transforming story. The problem is that he then loads it with much more than it can carry.

Pi claims that his story will “make you believe in God”. Through Pi, Martel sets up an opposition between secularists who ask what really happened and religious people who believe in the better story. This insults both groups, implying that non-believers lack imagination and religious followers don’t care about the truth.

Why do we have to believe in one story over another? We can appreciate both stories, holding both in our mind at the same time, probably preferring the tiger one, without having to have a belief about which one is true. Similarly, both agnostics and Christians can value the story of Adam and Eve without believing it actually happened. We can appreciate the non-literal truth of good fiction or Bible stories, but Pi, and through him Martel and Ang Lee, seem to demand something more – actual belief – disdaining those who cannot make such leaps of faith.

In our marvellously diverse world, some people believe in God and some don’t, and we misuse our art if we wield it to pour scorn on either group.

The real spoiler is the gifted author who writes a perfectly good story and then spoils it by wrapping it in shallow and confused ideas about religion.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2013 8:28 pm

    Interesting comments Bryce … and I’m not sure what I feel. I loved the book, particularly the ending, but when I watched the film I was surprised by all the belief/religious aspect as I recollected none of it. Perhaps it’s just that not being a believer myself I ignored that aspect of the book. Whatever the reason, I read it more in terms of the power of stories rather than the power of belief. I didn’t see “prefer” as quite equivalent to “believe” but maybe I was being a bit simplistic? I should read the book again, but too much to read …

    • Bryce permalink*
      March 23, 2013 9:15 pm

      Thanks Sue. The power of stories is certainly the most striking and satisfying feature of the novel, and it makes more sense to see it that way than in terms of belief. But rereading my post I realise I should have mentioned the repeated emphasis on belief in the book – the necessity to believe something, even if it’s that God doesn’t exist (so atheists are okay, sort of). It’s agnostics that he “pours scorn” on, and my impression is that Martel uses the book to express his own beliefs.
      Yes there is too much to read and, as well, too many books to reread, but for me, Life of Pi is not one of them. I’ve just finished Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain – a book that is definitely worth rereading.

      • March 24, 2013 7:47 am

        Thanks Bryce … I think you’re probably right about the Pi ok as I’m just going n my memory of what I recollected which is why that aspect of the film surprised me. Your comment about agnostics reminds me more of the book’s focus in fact … I do remember that point now you say it! I should read The mountain … Have heard ugh good things about it.

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