Life of Pi (spoilers!)


December 8, 2012 by Wayne.

I wanted to write something decently lengthy for this, but once again I’m constrained to typing on my iPhone. Apologies for any typos/mistakes and I do hope I don’t lose track and miss out anything.

Visually, the movie was phenomenal. Absolutely breathtaking, and the scenes with the thunderstorms were truly frightening. There were so many incredible shots – I particularly loved the one with the slightly zoomed out bird’s eye view, mimicking the cover of my book.

The pacing was pretty good and the acting was stellar.

Is it, however, (as claimed) a story to make you believe in God?

Well, not quite. Pi’s father provided a voice of rationality early on with respect to Pi’s buffet approach to religion: you cannot truly believe in multiple religions at once with any real depth. It’s only possible to do so if you cherry pick from each, adopting various parts of them simply because they resonate with you. Then again, Pi is
irrational lolpun. This emphasis on religion (early on, then ungracefully tacked on again at the end) was slightly annoying to me.

Also, the movie lacks the ambiguity of the book’s ending – something which made it such a powerful punch. Here, we deal instead with a tale that jumps more obviously into direct metaphors and symbolism. The only saving grace is that it makes it much easier to review.

Essentially, the movie version firmly pushes the case that Richard Parker etc were metaphorical fabrications to echo the real story. This is heavily implied at the end of the film, and is foreshadowed by several fantastical, implausible scenes prior to the revelation.

Richard Parker?

Interestingly enough, RP is the name of several real-life people who have been shipwrecked and cannibalized. However, note that RP isn’t the tiger’s real name – it happened due to a mistake in the papers where Thirsty’s name was swapped with the hunter’s. While there is a parallel to Pi’s own nickname acquisition, the most obvious contrast here is that Pi took control of his name whereas RP got it by accident.

So what exactly is Richard Parker supposed to be? We’ll take the most obvious route for symbolism here and go for RP being Pi’s ‘evil’ side – carnivorous and ruthless but above all, striving for self preservation. Of course, one could say Pi creates RP to escape from admitting his descent into sin (killing the ‘hyena’ chef, devouring the flesh of animals) but I think it goes a bit deeper than that. At the beginning, Pi is the swimming pool with the clearest water, earnest and transparent in his desire to exist virtuously. Through his ocean journey, though, Pi goes through a complex relationship with RP – first fearing him, trying to keep him away from the lifeboat, then trying to tame him and finally forming a wary symbiosis.

Richard Parker is the human body’s struggle for survival in the worst of conditions. Only by resorting to things previously heinous to Pi (and, really, he goes further in the book) can he find the willpower and courage to survive.

Early in the movie, Pi insists that animals have souls. RP seems to justify his insistence, with the two carrying out a wary existence aboard the tiny lifeboat for an incredibly long time. In the end, though, the tiger leaves without a single glance back. Reflecting the absurdist strains in The Stranger (a book Pi was previously shown to be reading), there isn’t anything deeper to Richard Parker beyond his animal nature. All that Pi sees are merely reflections of himself. All the aspects of RP, good or bad, are part of Pi’s projections on to the Bengal tiger.

After the second violent thunderstorm, Pi approaches a worn out Richard Parker and lays the tiger’s head on his lap. He comes to terms with this dissociation of his self and is then ready to accept death.

What he gets instead is the bizarre carnivorous island, a glimpse of an afterlife that arrives when he succumbs and surrenders to his condition. If you give up, the soothing balm is only a short reprise. What the island gives, it takes away by night – if you surrender now you will be eaten up and forgotten just like the sailors before you. Richard Parker naturally, skips away to the boat, refusing to die. And thus Pi sets off again on a final push, with resources and spirit renewed. Of course, it’s entirely possible that this was just a small island and Pi contemplated living the rest of his life there, with the hallucination/dream/revelation shocking him out of it.

And so it is that Pi finds himself finally washed ashore, beaten and broken but ultimately a defiant survivor. Richard Parker, that embodiment of all the courageous and cruel things he had to do to survive, leaves him without acknowledgment and Pi passes out. When he comes too, Pi cries for Richard Parker no longer has a need to exist. Again, another part of Pi leaves without him being able to say goodbye or express gratitude (think: his parents etc), and Pi cries wretchedly at the emptiness of it all. What was the meaning of it, why would this evil be brought out of him (note: the hyena chef heralds the explosion of Richard Parker out of the covers and into the first brutal sin)? One could argue that Richard Parker was necessary for Pi’s survival and that that form of intense will to survive at all costs cannot exist in civilized society, but why then does Pi cry for Richard Parker?

Essentially, he wants RP to acknowledge what they went through. He wants to be baptized and washed clean before they part, but instead he sees only himself in RP’s eyes and is left with the knowledge that his projection of guilt has died without absolving him of sin.

Ultimately, sometimes we need lies and fiction to cope with the conditions of life. Sometimes life is simply blunt, cruel and meaningless (like the actual shipwreck event). However (like the metaphorical fabrication), religion offers a way to not give up in the search for inspiration; in the quest for meaning in an absurd universe. The movie ends with the acknowledgement that religion essentially sprung from this necessity – “so it goes with god” and that at the end of the day, Pi rejected the afterlife and settled into the appreciation of all religions on the merit of their aesthetic surfaces and moral based only.

Whichever story really occurred (I should mention again that the movie clearly presents the grim animal-less one as the truth), note that the beginning (ship sinks) and the end (Pi survives) remain the same. At surface level, there’s an easy enough meaning to extract: we don’t get to choose how we start out and perhaps we won’t ever know why we exist (no one knows how or why the ship sunk), but we get to choose how we cope with daily life without changing the ending. Religion, then, is there to make the journey more amenable.

However, as Pi remarks, “the end is up to you now”. For, as terrible as an event can be, if you survive at the end of it, you haven’t escaped fate yet. Do we get a happy ending? Does following a certain religion (or several) ensure you one? We can’t tell for sure.

All in all, a pretty brilliant movie.

2 thoughts on “Life of Pi (spoilers!)

  1. tophatboy says:

    And a pretty brilliant review,Wayne. Very impressed at your neutrality. In spite of your almost trademark snarky cynical asides, it was almost as much of a pleasure to read your unbiased opinion of something as the movie itself. More of this please, love your writing.


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