I have some big things in the works that I will be rolling out very soon, but as of right now, please enjoy some musings on a movie I just recently saw.
Earlier today, I saw Life of Pi, and like many other great creative works I’ve come across, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Partially because of the film’s insanely gorgeous imagery, but also because I’ve been wrestling with its themes and ideas. It’s been out for a while, so I feel comfortable spoiling the movie in this.
After reading the general response online, though, I realized I interpreted the ending of the film differently than most people I came across.
WARNING: I can’t really talk about the movie’s themes unless I talk about the ending, when everything comes together. So if you haven’t seen it, and are the kind of person that likes to go into a movie fresh, this is your warning. Maybe you can go read a music article of mine! Scroll down. Have fun on my blog. You are more than welcome. Feel free to click on whatever you want. Make suggestions for things and I’ll probably do them. Go nuts! You have my permission.
I think I should also mention I haven’t read the book, I’m going purely by film here. Ok, so. I think a lot of people, when describing Life of Pi, will say that it is the story of a boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger. Which, in a way is true, but isn’t quite the whole picture. It’s the story of a man telling the story of being stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger. This is an important distinction I’ll get into later. SPOILER ALERT FOR REAL. SPOILERS START HERE OK??? At the end, we find out that the beautiful, exciting, and heartbreaking story we just heard this man tell was actually fiction. In reality, he was alone, and the animals that we saw share the lifeboat with him were actually representative of humans that all ended up dead. His mother included. Once he tells the story, he asks his audience–an author interested in his story–which he prefers. The truth, or the fiction. The author answers that he prefers the story with the tiger, which is the obvious answer. It’s got a dang tiger in it! It’s a winner. Gladiator had tigers. It won Best Picture. Coincidence? Whatever.
This part is important: when the author answers that he prefers the version with the tigers, Pi answers, “Thank you.” And then says, “And so it goes with God.”
A lot of people were disappointed with the ending of this film. They feel disappointed that the events that actually took place were never shown, they were only explained in expository dialogue. They considered it a betrayal. Like a movie ending with the protagonist waking up and being told the whole thing was a dream. They felt cheated that their emotions were so invested in what amounts to a lie. Extrapolating on those ideas, many think the movie’s supporting telling yourself lies to avoid the harsher truth. And in turn it’s supporting being religious just to make yourself feel better even though you’re skeptical.
Which I totally understand, by the way. If you were disappointed by the ending, you are not wrong. BUT, I interpreted things differently. To me, the film isn’t about religion. It isn’t about dealing with trauma. It’s about storytelling. It’s about communicating emotions.
I don’t consider Pi’s story of the tiger to be a coping device. He tells the true story to the author without hesitation, and when pressed enough by the Japanese boat company guys, he explains the events that took place without confusion. He’s not delusional about what really happened. He knows the reality of the situation and is willing to explain it. The story of the tiger is not him trying to block out his traumatic memories, it’s him trying his best to describe a completely indescribable experience.
The “coping device” interpretation kind of doesn’t hold up, in my opinion. The whole crux of the argument–Pi is lying to himself–doesn’t make sense to me really. If it really was his way of dealing with what happened, then why is the fictional account just as emotional? If he was avoiding the trauma, why does his fictionalized version of the story have violence and heartbreak and all the other emotions he must have felt in real life? I don’t think the fictional account was for Pi. That was Pi’s story for the people that wanted to hear what it was like. So he did his best to relate it. I was discussing the film with a friend, and she put it perfectly: “there is no way that he would be able to tell EITHER story if he were truly deluded.” He couldn’t have given people the option to choose which story they liked better if he was really lying to himself.
Two similar examples of this come to mind. First, the graphic novel Maus, which has an old man telling the staggering story of his experience in Auschwitz to his son. Instead of drawing human characters, the author and illustrator Art Spiegelman made the decision to draw every Jewish character as a cartoon mouse, and every German character as a cat. It’s a brilliant decision. By portraying the characters as animals, it actually makes the unthinkable atrocities that happen more relatable. You get caught up in what seems like a work of very dark fiction, only to remind yourself that it’s all true. Or the Tim O’Brien essay “How to Tell a True War Story,” in which he explains that a “true” war story isn’t about facts. It isn’t about the most accurate portrayal. O’Brien argues that a true war story is one that captures the emotions of the event. There are plenty of “true war stories” that never happened. And while some people might feel cheated that what they’re being told isn’t accurate, O’Brien argues that a true war story is one that captures the emotional truth, not the factual truth.
And that is exactly what Pi’s story does. How could he ever possibly relate what it felt like to go through his experience to someone else unless they lived it? The only way he could possibly hope to relate the experience to someone else is to tell the emotional truth. The audience in the theater I was in gasped and shouted “nooo” when the orangutan was killed. We find out later the orangutan represented Pi’s mother. Would the audience have gasped and shouted had it been his mother all along? If we had seen the grim reality and not the fantasy? I would guess no. And that’s the whole point of the movie. The allegory is not a cheat. It’s even more effective.
Think about that line I quoted up there a little while ago: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” Arguably, it’s the most important line in the film. While a lot of people focus on the line about God, I think the “thank you,” is just important. Why is Pi thanking the author for saying the tiger story is better than the reality? Because he takes it as a compliment. He effectively expressed his emotions through fiction. That’s the mark of a good story, and a good storyteller.
The movie then relates this idea to religion. It relates back to what was said in the beginning. Pi’s father said that science and logic is all one needs. Science is about truth. Facts. But then his mother mentions that while science explains what’s all around us, religion can help describe what’s inside us. Pi is able to reconcile these seemingly differing viewpoints through his love of stories. PS I guess I should mention here I’m not particularly religious, I guess I’d call myself agnostic if the chips were down. So don’t take this as some religious nutso trying to project his own beliefs onto this movie. This is what I took away from it.
But anyway, this is the movie’s whole plot in a nutshell. Science is the real story of what happened. Whereas religion is the fictional account. “Such as it is with God.” The movie is saying that Pi’s story is like religion. They both try to make the intangible something communicable. Both religion and Pi’s story use storytelling to relate and communicate something beyond our understanding. This is also supported in Pi’s “collecting” of religions, which probably have contradictory viewpoints. He practices so many because he approaches them from the perspective of an admiring fellow storyteller, not as a firm believer in all their ideas.
If you still are a bit skeptical, check out this quote straight from the horse’s mouth! Or should I say… tiger??? Hahaha very funny joke. But no it’s from a human. The author of the book said this on the second dang page of the book: “That’s what fiction is about isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”
I think this addresses a lot of peoples’ issues with the film. The ending, again, is the whole conceit. It’s not a betrayal of everything you saw before. It’s not saying that it’s cool to just accept lies to make us feel better even when we know they aren’t true. It’s demonstrating how religion uses the same tactics as a great work of fiction. To communicate emotions. To make sense of the indescribable. It’s a confirmation of the power of fiction, while still working as great fiction in its own right. In my opinion, it succeeds.