Then the elderly man said, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”
When I first saw the trailer for the cinematic adaptation of Life of Pi, I had never heard of Yann Martel, much less his award-winning novel. My first reaction was actually confusion: how could a movie be successful if it’s just about a kid and a tiger on a boat? As time passed, the details of the trailer faded from memory, yet I couldn’t quite manage to forget about Life of Pi entirely.
It was a quiet evening during my penultimate semester at UNC when I finally got the chance to watch Life of Pi for the first time. I was alone in my apartment, my only company a bottle of wine and a very domesticated (and very spoiled!) miniature tiger.
As the opening credits began—accompanied by fantastic music, I might add—I wondered to myself what kind of film I was settling in for: would it be a harrowing story of survival as man struggles to overcome a savage predator and the very forces of nature simultaneously? Or would it perhaps be an uplifting tale and detail how a young boy and his furry, feline friend manage to help each other in their mutual time of need?
I suppose that it could be argued that neither hypothesis was entirely wrong. The reality, though, was so much more profound and nuanced than I could ever have expected—I truly can’t imagine another film impacting or moving me so. I knew then that I had to read the book; now, I have.
Life of Pi recounts a story “that will make you believe in God.” It could, then, be considered a failure on either the part of Yann Martel as the author or myself as the reader that my beliefs on the subject have not changed. Perhaps that’s even the case; it is not, however, my opinion.
At the end of the book, the reader is presented with two stories explaining the same series of events and led to believe that one is accurate. The two stories have a good deal in common: both share the same settings, and both are filled with sadness.
Even though both stories are tragic, one is considerably more bleak. The horrible events that so impacted our protagonist had no meaning, happening as a result of either circumstance or the extreme inattentiveness and brutality of man. Pi’s survival, meanwhile, is partially due to his own brutishness and largely due to dumb luck—if you can call anyone in his situation “lucky”. Little about this story is fanciful; each detail is entirely possible, though most anyone would wish that such things had never happened.
In the second story, Pi’s suffering is provided greater meaning: we’re shown a world in which his pains are not random but perhaps part of a greater, perhaps even divine, plan. Unlike in the first story, Pi does not suffer alone. His companion is powerful and difficult—impossible, even—to understand. Pi often fears his shipmate—who wouldn’t?—but remains respectful, and the two come to develop a symbiotic relationship.
The noteworthy events from the first story are present in the second, but they’re told in very different ways. The results of some horrific events from the other story do remain conveniently mysterious, however—it seems that only an omniscient being could know the truth. Meanwhile, Pi’s own actions can still be brutal like in the first story, but they are noticeably less horrific: when he breaks his vegetarianism to survive, he is regretful and refuses to forget the lives he takes, continually thanking and praying for the fish he consumes. In this way, Pi’s actions have a sort of nobility rather than simple desperation. Throughout the story, Pi is provided for via storms of flying fish or a fantastic island refuge replete with food and water. With such fantastic luck, it must be that a greater being is looking out for Pi; if that’s the case, are his choices to break his own morals not more justified and validated?
In life, we all go through times of difficulty, despair and heartbreak. True, few of our troubles will be on the same magnitude as those of Piscine Molitor Patel, but that doesn’t change the fact that each of us still have our own trials to face. Some of these challenges help us grow and shape us into people we can be proud to be. Others, though, are not nearly as romantic—even in hindsight.
In my personal life, it’s these latter experiences that are hard to shake. I find myself constantly searching for meaning or a silver lining behind these misfortunes; in some cases, I can’t find an answer even years later.
After reading Life of Pi, I can imagine a world where all misery serves a purpose. The suffering caused by depression would be a learning experience; the death of a loved one would be part of a supreme cosmic plan. Even if my adversity did not provide me benefit, I could take comfort in knowing that it was necessary in a grander scheme. I could be reassured by the presence of some great being who holds the power to right the fate of the universe if it were to tip too far out of balance. Even though I don’t believe this world is a reality, I can see its immense appeal.
Life of Pi did not make me believe in God. Life of Pi made me understand the belief in God.
The movie, at times, could be rather difficult to watch; the fate of Orange Juice the orangutan, for example, lacked any enjoyable elements. The book, however, is considerably more gruesome. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire1, which I personally feel is filled with gratuitous violence for no other purpose than the shock factor, I do find that the brutal elements of Life of Pi do contribute to the book as a whole. They do not, however, make it any easier to read.
When I’m reading a book for the first time, I’m far from an active critic. Sure, I might notice a few sections that I take some issue with—moreso with non-fiction—but the critical portion of my brain doesn’t kick into high gear until I no longer feel wrapped up in the book’s world or topic. With less enjoyable literature, this may occur within the first few chapters; typically, it occurs once I’ve read a book’s final word.
There are two books, though, that have never entirely let me go: Flowers for Algernon was the first, and, now, Life of Pi is the second. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel entirely finished with either, and, as such, I really can’t think of noteworthy criticism.
Even though I can’t come up with anything negative about the book, I will say, that Life of Pi the movie does follow the usual trend of being inferior to its written source. While it’s easily one of my favorite films, I feel that its differences serve only to dull the story. They do, however, make it easier to consume.
Perhaps it’s no surprise given my lack of criticism, but I have to give Life of Pi a complete five stars out of five.
For anyone unfamiliar, this is George R.R. Martin’s series that starts with Game of Thrones. ↩