Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Life of Pi Movie: Religion, the Natural World, Stoicism

Image from

I'm afraid, book lovers, that this post will cover the film version of Yann Martel's Life of Pi novel. I read the novel a few years ago, and would really love to read it again, but this post is largely in response to my cinema trip last week. However, I must say that I felt the film to be accurate to the text - always a good thing!

The film has been advertised as a work of such great attention to detail and beauty. Producers are become increasingly obsessed with visuals, what with the shutter speed of The Hobbit (you can't escape hearing this) and the popularity of films in 3D. I watched Life of Pi in 2D due to my hatred of 3D glasses, and I have to say that it lived up to the hype. Below is a quick copy and paste from Wikipedia, if you are unfamiliar with the plot. I'll warn you now - it's concise.

Life of Pi is a 2012 American adventure drama film based on Yann Martel's 2001 novel of the same name. The film is about a 16-year old boy named Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, who suffers a shipwreck in which his family dies, and is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Despite this minimalist summary, there are so many things to discuss about the film. However, I'll limit my discussion here to just a few ideas, and I'm not going to mention the ending. Therefore, my post hopefully won't become akin to a rambling essay. If you are interested in the real vs false plot question, I found this article interesting.

To begin with, Pi struggles with the concept of following just one religion. He is an accepting, loving child, and sees no reason why he cannot embrace Hinduism, Christianity and Islam equally. You cannot help but smile at the innocent idealism of a world with widespread acceptance and sharing of faith. Yet one must also question the perpetual question of morality: if Pi is such a great kid and believes in three religions, with three sets of gods to protect him, why does he suffer so greatly?

Perhaps he suffers in order to experience what he does: the sublime beauty of an unpolluted starry sky reflecting on the ocean, the friendship he forms with animals and nature, the time he spends contemplating the world, or more appropriately the universe, around him. Before the shipwreck, Pi is seen to be reading Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky and Albert Camus' L’Étranger. If you are familiar with literature, which I imagine you are if you are reading my blog, you'll probably be smiling at the chosen books; they are so associated with teenage angst and a search for identity and meaning. Although the shipwreck is an intensely traumatic experience - if it did in fact happen, of which I will say no more - it allows Pi to view his life with less confusion and need for explanation. Things happen, you cannot change them, and you have to find a way to live with what you've got (in Pi's case, a tiger). As we are often reminded, Pi's story is one that will "make you believe in God", and, because of his suffering, he has gained a direction in life that eventually allows him to tell his story.

If the shipwreck had happened to the average teenage boy, I'm unsure he would have lasted very long. Pi displays perseverance, courage and, eventually, a stoic acceptance of what has happened to him and his family. When he realises that he can do nothing other than accept his situation, he focuses on training Richard Parker (the tiger), writing a journal between the lines of his survival manual, and improving his raft. I found the following diagram very appropriate and amusing:

To be honest, Pi couldn't deal with his predicament any better. He didn't have a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations on hand, regrettably, but it sounds like he did. For instance, on watching the stars above him whilst alone in the ocean with a tiger, the following phrase from Meditations comes to mind:

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

After effectively hitting rock bottom, Pi accepts the power of the omnipotent guy in the sky, and states aloud that he isn't scared of death. This is rather like,

"Despise not death, but welcome it, for nature wills it like all else."

I could say a lot more, and I am sure that I will go on to contemplate the film a great deal. Yet I've come to believe that, to Pi, religion is not bound to a name or a God. It is more a connection to the wider whole, be it the ocean, flying fish, or the night sky, alongside an intense feeling of acceptance. Pi remains a part of the world around him, regardless of his solitude, and he doesn't lose touch with the spiritual world. Perhaps this is why his story will "make you believe in God", although not a typical, individual concept of a God. Hmm, so much to think about.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like this book and film deal with age old questions in an unusual and interesting way. I am definitely intrigued. :-) I hope I'll get the chance to see this in the theater. This is something I rarely do, but with a visually spectacular film, it's often worth it.

Lucy said...

I'd certainly recommend going to the cinema to see it!

I think this film becomes what you decide to make of it: you can either view it as a PG film that has lots of exciting animals in, or as a plot containing deeply moral questions. Or both :p I think this explains the great age range of people going to see it

All the best.

tolstoytherapy said...

I'd certainly recommend going to the cinema to see it!

I think this film becomes what you decide to make of it: you can either view it as a PG film that has lots of exciting animals in, or as a plot containing deeply moral questions. Or both :p I think this explains the great age range of people going to see it

All the best.

armunresting said...

I find your blog very interesting, posts begin engaging, promising, but they remain teasers, you don't go to where you're pointing but just open the door to promptly shut it, we're left longing for the journey that could've been...

"Soltar el brazo" we say in Spanish, I wish to see where do you get to when you 'write the walk', all the way, just get carried away by the rhythm of the typing. As for this post, and the one of the wingnut you recommend (the delusion is No.3, my vote), I found the movie, much more so than the book, to be one of the best case studies against religion. When Pi tells what actually happened, it just shows how much religion's lenses fall ever so short from the complex reality we are inhabited by as we imaging ourselves inhabiting it. That is what is most surprising about the movie, how wide open it is to almost any interpretation, yet it does not hurt anyone's feelings in the process. Even more stunning than the visuals which I wonder for how long are they going to be seen as such.

All the best, keep at it!

armunresting said...

Hello, it's me again, sorry for the lack of moderation, I thought the post was going to be moderated before being posted. Next time I'll take that into consideration.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you! I'm glad that you found the film interesting and engaging too. I'm looking forward to it coming out on DVD so I can think about certain sections more (especially the discussions of religion). I also enjoyed how open the film was to interpretation - the innocent, childlike perspective of Pi really aided this, I believe.

And yes, cinematic visuals are developing so quickly; you can't help but wonder what they'll be like for the next generation.

tolstoytherapy said...

That's no problem. My comment system only moderates if there's a website mentioned in the comment (which usually means it's spam).

queek32 said...

I watched the movie and then read Crime and Punishment - one quote stuck out as incredibly pertinent, it is Raskolnikov on the law of self-preservation: "a condemned man, just before he died, said, or thought, that if he had to live on some high crag, on a ledge so small that there was no more than room for his two feet, with all about him the abyss, the ocean, the eternal night, eternal solitude, eternal storm and there he must remain, on a hand's-breadth of ground, all his life, a thousand years, through all eternity - it would be better to live so, than to die within the hour? Only to live, to live! No matter how - only to live!"

tolstoytherapy said...


This is such a perfect comparison and one of my favourite quotes. Thank you for reminding me of it!