The Life of Pi Movie Misinterprets Itself

So Life of Pi. I’m talking about the very end of both the movie and the book today so it is fully a spoiler fest on here.

Hi there, you. Whoever you are. I’d read Life of Pi, if I were you and the me/you person I/you am/are haven’t read it already. The movie will do in a pinch but the book is seriously good.

There’s a scene near the end of Life of Pi in which the movie very helpfully tells you what the meaning is behind the whole thing. I get it, sort of. We live in such times as apparently nobody wants to have to think ever. It’s probably also because the selling point of this book and movie has always been, “This is a story that will make you believe in God.” I think that’s the bigger problem in need of a “explain the meaning during the runtime” solution right there. That’s a pretty bold statement, and in the book, there’s no outright “aha” moment. Never fear, though, it’s in the movie.

Also, it gets the whole thing 100% wrong.

We return, near the end of the movie, to grown-up Pi lamenting to his narrator friend that he never got to say goodbye to Richard Parker (that would be the tiger). By and by narrator friend says, “… that was an amazing story, but, a little hard to believe?” So grown-up Pi tells another story. This time, we don’t flashback to teenage Pi. We just watch grown-up Pi tell the story in the present day.

In this one, there’s Pi, an evil cannibal chef, a Buddhist sailor, and Pi’s mom. The chef amputates the sailor’s leg to be “helpful” but actually so that they can eat some meat (the chef is a big advocate of meat-eating), the sailor dies, Pi’s mom flips out at/physically attacks the chef for being evil, and the chef kills Pi’s mom, right in front of him. Not long afterwards, Pi kills the chef, who doesn’t resist his own murder. Pi survives on the lifeboat alone and gets to Mexico.

Gross.

So then grown-up Pi asks narrator friend, “Which story did you prefer?” And narrator friend says, “The one with the animals.” And grown-up Pi says, “And so it is with God.”

Sigh.

No, movie. No.

Grown-up Pi’s statement is pretty vague, so it’s not exactly entirely wrong, but the easy interpretation of said statement is, “It’s nicer and funner and more interesting and more comforting and less horrific to think that there’s a God/the sacred texts have some/lots of truth to them, so that’s why we believe that stuff.” And that’s pretty nihilistic, if you ask me. Also the book did it much differently and it’s better.

In the book, the story proper completely ends with Pi lamenting never saying goodbye to Richard Parker. He was devastated. RP meant a lot to him and he would like to have believed that he meant something to RP in turn, but RP never looked back at him. That’s sad. The end.

On the next page, we’re informed that the narrator found a transcript of a conversation between Pi and two guys from the insurance company for the ship. They wanted him to tell them the whole story to try to understand why the ship sank and also lifeboats, I guess.

The transcript starts right after Pi has told them the animal story. They, like movie narrator friend, don’t believe it. They want to be nice (somehow that gets conveyed even though there’s seemingly no artistry to this part; it’s a straight transcript), but they prod him to tell them the real story. “There’s no way you survived on that lifeboat with a tiger. And the flesh-eating island full of meerkats? Come on.”

So eventually he tells them the other story. It’s the same as the one in the movie. At the end of it, there’s silence. Then I think teenage transcript Pi asks them which one they prefer (I can’t find my copy of the book to check), and they of course say they like the animal one. This time, his “Which story do you prefer” isn’t a question of friendly interest, many years after his horrific experience. This time, it seems more pointed, as though he’s saying, “See? I told you the better story but you weren’t satisfied with it, well now look how that turned out for you!”

After the transcript ends, there is a news article about Pi that has used the insurance men as sources. The story of how Pi survived the shipwreck those men have told the journalists is the one with the animals. And that is the end of the book.

We end the book with two very strong notions of what just happened: The story with the humans and no animals is what actually happened, and that the story with the animals is better. But give it some thought, and there’s one conclusion that brings everything together.

The stories are the same.

The same things happen in both stories. The same players are there. Richard Parker is Pi. The chef is the hyena – and in the book, the french man does show up as an actual human being as well, so that even that disgusting man is portrayed as fully human and that is a different discussion – the Buddhist sailor is the zebra, and Orange Juice is Pi’s mom. He even says, during the animal story’s telling, that he’d always thought of Orange Juice as a maternal figure. She has lost her baby in the shipwreck, just as Pi’s mom had lost her other son.

There are key differences, obviously. Maternal though she may be, there’s a big difference between watching a hyena kill an orangutan and watching a horrible person kill your mother. There’s a difference also between a boy murdering his mother’s murderer and a tiger killing a hyena out of primal kill-need.

But… not that much of a difference. At least, I would argue that.

I think the fact that I’m inclined to view animals as being more or less identical to humans in most of the ways that matter means that I view both versions of this story as horrific. In the human version, as awful as all of the killing is, at least it makes sense. There are reasons and motivations for it all that I can relate to. The hyena is unnecessarily cruel with the zebra (and although Martel tries to claim that a hyena would indeed act like that in this situation, I’m calling bullshit), and on meerkat island it’s pointed out that RP kills way more meerkats than he can eat. He just kills them to kill them. It’s a thing about cats I will never understand.

Pi’s mother being murdered is awful. But because Orange Juice is an innocent, her death is, I think, just as awful, but in a different way. Orange Juice didn’t need to object to the hyena’s treatment of the zebra. She didn’t need to put herself in danger, but her compassion and righteous fury compelled her to do so and it’s just really sad that she couldn’t save herself. It’s a different kind of sad and I’ll be forever at pains to explain that being just as sad about bad things to happen to animals as I am about bad things that happen to humans is not a moral failing on my part (or, like, everyone else who feels that way). We can be equally sad about both things in different ways or similar ways depending on the situation, so deal with it. Also this is just fiction but OMG I hate fictional depiction of animal cruelty. I can’t separate it from the real things that happen everyday.

Here.

It’s super sad at first but then there’s a bunch of baby orangs in a wheelbarrow so. You know.

Sorry, fellow humans. It seems that the greatest ape is the orangutan.

Anyway. There are clear differences in how the personal trauma will affect Pi depending on whether it’s his mother and humans or his zoo animals, but other than that, it’s the same story.

Life of Pi doesn’t endeavour to make you believe in God. It’s just showing you how sacred texts work.

A religious story may bend the truth or completely fabricate it. We have no way of knowing. Jesus of Nazareth, who was probably one of the most influential people to walk the planet ever, only has one piece of historical evidence to call his own. Something about how James is his brother and they called him “Christ.” That’s it. There’re the gospels but those weren’t written down until hundreds of years post crucifixion. At least some of that stuff isn’t true. Maybe a lot of it isn’t. What Life of Pi is suggesting is that it doesn’t matter what specifically is factually true, because the point of the story is to make meaning which is a different kind of truth.

The animals on the lifeboat, RP moreso than the others, are there to give Pi’s experience meaning. Without them, it’s just another story about people doing awful things in awful circumstances. And with RP especially, Pi’s struggle for survival isn’t just a boy being resourceful and almost starving or dying of thirst and eventually making it. His relationship with RP makes his survival story something more. It’s about having compassion for that part of yourself that you are ashamed of, the more animalistic, enraged, violent side of you. Pi has to keep RP fed and watered for his own sanity, and RP needs Pi to care for him because he’s just a tiger on a lifeboat. He can’t do that himself. They befriend each other, but Pi can never communicate with RP the way he would like to. And RP, excepting those moments when he really is dying, is always a gigantic threat to Pi, if he lets his guard down.

Having the tiger there makes it a really entertaining, easy to understand story about the human condition and human nature and internal darkness and lizard brains and stuff. Everything that happens with RP is truthful, if the human version of the story is the “real” one, even though there is no tiger. Because the tiger just represents an element of Pi that shows up when he needs it to and disappears once he’s back in civilization.

About the God stuff, then. I like to think you can interpret this in both ways. In Life of Pi terms, believing in God is the same as not believing in God, it’s just that believing in God adds metaphorical meaning to the question of why we’re even here. In God’s absence, we should still probably be trying to help each other out but everything is messy and uncertain. In God’s presence that idea of radical love/kindness is made a little clearer (only for people who don’t use their faith to be cowards and bigots, of course, but still), and a little more artfully. On the other hand, because Richard Parker is real whether or not he’s actually a tiger, the book does seem to edge further towards the “believing in God” side of the spectrum, which is fine. Pi would approve; he’s a God fan.

While the ending of the movie annoys me, I do really like this one scene:

Because:

  • Pi looks at RP, who is looking at the stars
  • RP looks at the water, and his reflection
  • Pi looks at RP looking at his reflection
  • Pi looks at his own reflection
  • RP reflecting while looking at his reflection
  • Images of Pi’s and RP’s past and the shipwreck
  • Pi looking at Pi’s reflection
  • RP looking at Pi looking his reflection

AHHH! It’s so cool. And you can’t do that in a book.

Also, the flesh-eating island that looks like a tomb? That was brilliant.

The fact that they used a real tiger for some scenes and at one point he almost drowned? Not brilliant.

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