I have a lot to say on this, so you’ve been warned.
I saw the trailer for Life of Pi back in early November when my aunt took me to watch Rise of the Guardians (yes, I like children’s movies; now hush). I decided then and there that I was going to watch it, but I was leaving just before it came out. So back in Poland, I thought I’d watch it, since it came out 2 days before I left there…only to lack the time to do that. The whole time I was also trying to find the means to read the book, but it was nowhere to be found. My father finally bought it back from a trip a day or two before I left Poland, but I didn’t have time to read it till I was on my 18-hour bus ride. I just saw the movie yesterday. I’m not sure I’ve made up my mind about where I stand with the book, but the movie is lovely. The movie is wonderful, and everyone I know who’s seen it—including me—has come out of the theater proclaiming the wonders and beauty of the world.
Yann Martel’s Novel
The book is well written. Martel has excellent command of prose, and can make scenes and emotions dance darkly and gloomily before your eyes. From a zoological perspective, he’s very down-to-earth and grimly honest. He successfully conveys that sense of a person who loves animals and identifies with them, even as he understands the danger that they pose. I can see why people like him.
My first problem with this book was a religious one. I wanted to read it primarily because of the premise that Pi is a Hindu who decides to also adopt Christianity and Islam. I’ve never heard of anyone else—real or fictional—who adopted this lifestyle, and I was truly eager to see this. In this I was disappointed. Religion in this book felt superficial; the Hindu, Muslim and Christian holy men argue amongst themselves and debunk each other without so much as an attempt at subtlety. I’ve never in my life seen such a thing; in my experience, it isn’t the holy men but the ordinary people who say, “No, that’s wrong; you can’t be more than one religion at once!” The priests are the ones whom I have always known to be accepting and tolerant of this idea; it honestly bothered me that Pi never tried to argue, “But they’re all the same God!” Hindu, Christian and Muslim seems simple to me to combine, because under all the layers, their concept of God is one and the same! I grew up Shinto, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu, and it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to combine Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism; it’s only when Shinto comes in that things have ever gotten iffy, because Shinto doesn’t believe in one all-encompassing God, but rather that each individual little thing has a spirit. But I put this aside with the, “It’s India, people are very hot-headed there,” explanation. I liked Pi’s insistence, “But I just want to love God.” But the problem is, he doesn’t seem to love God. I can’t feel it—every reference to God felt a shallow, empty thing, like a man without any faith grasping, trying to portray something he himself has never experienced. I don’t consider myself religious; maybe another person would feel differently. But it drove me nuts that not once, not in this entire horrific tale did Pi simply try to talk to God. He theorizes about God’s plan, he makes some statements that I think were intended to be profound, I think he even asked “Why me?” once… Not once in his 227 days of misery does he simply strike up a conversation with God. Not once does he claim to have a passing thought of God without it having some sort of literary point to it. And that, to me, was the complete opposite of what I’d hoped to find.
But that’s fine. It’s not what I’d consider a religious book, that’s that. I read plenty of those. I can set aside the expectation, and look at it as I’d look at any other book that has nothing to do with religion.
I did appreciate the rest of the story. But the problem is, while the first part maintains a careful balance between hope and the prelude to despair, after that it’s nothing but a black hole of coldness, emptiness and despair. Martel touches on controversial concepts for what seems like very little symbolic value when weighted against the shock value. He is practical and cold in his narration, though this serves to evoke the sense of a man at wit’s end, with no hope left. The problem is, that’s all there is. He makes you cry, makes you lose hope, and leaves you to claw your own way back into reality where life is really worth living. Pi’s survival didn’t feel like a wondrous miracle; it felt like reaching the top of a mountain you hiked up hoping all the while for a light that wasn’t there after all.
It’s gory. It’s horrific. It’s devastating. Animals are animals, blood-thirsty and heartless, and we are made to understand this with several scenes that were more than I could bear. I only cried once, and it wasn’t at the deaths of the main character’s family in the ship wreck, or indeed anything that should have been so painful. I’m part zoologist, at any rate, and I understand that the animal kingdom isn’t a romantic or pretty place. I understand that terrible things happen. But there is this scene where there are a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena in the boat; the hyena eats the other 2. In and of itself, it doesn’t sound like the stuff of nightmares. But Martel makes it that by making it elaborate, gory and long. For pages and pages this horror continues as the zebra gets eaten alive over the course of days, and I wasn’t just shedding a few tears: I was shaking with sobs that I had to fight to keep silent (annoying the lady next to me, who gave me a whole packet of tissues).
Which is an accomplishment, really. I don’t think I’ve cried that hard at a work of fiction since… Oh, I can’t even remember. Probably something I read about World War II…which of course isn’t fiction. I can’t ever remember being so devastated by a work of fiction.
I liked it, though. That’s the thing…it’s an odd book. It has this excellent premise. It’s only that Martel’s execution of it leaves something to be desired, but he’s prolific enough to carry you on right past that point without even realizing what’s bothering you. After reading the book, before I watched the movie, I would have rated it 7/10.
Ang Lee’s Movie
But then I saw the movie. Oh, what a movie! I loved that movie. Because it took Martel’s beautiful premise, and follows the story closely enough, but everything that Martel did wrong, Ang Lee did right. And only after watching that movie did I realize how much I had actually been devastated by the book.
I was dreading the gory scenes in the movie (I packed 2 packs of tissues and everything). But scenes that had been gory and lengthy in the book were instead quick, and off-camera. In fact, all the gore that the book goes on extensively about is off-camera. You see the people’s reactions, not the gore. They were transformed from nightmare fuel into sad events. And I fell in love with Ang Lee right there, because I realized that that’s how it should have been all along.
The religion that the book had lacked that I didn’t even expect to find in the movie was there. And it was beautiful. Only the Christian priest makes an appearance, and he is only portrayed proclaiming Jesus’ and God’s love. It’s not priests, but Pi’s atheist father who tries to tell him that he must choose one because he can’t believe in everything. Pi does not, as he says in the book, say “I just want to love God” in response; he instead says, “I want to be baptized.” So the rest of the movie continues. None of the “profound” statements that Pi makes in the book are there. Instead, there’s a simple boy who believes.
The movie was like no other work I’ve ever seen. It followed the book very closely. And yet it was fundamentally different. By taking out the gore, by letting Pi’s religions no more or less than what they are, by trying to maintain wonder throughout Pi’s trials rather than trying to devastate viewers beyond the capacity to feel amazement, Ang Lee took this story and made it something new. What Pi does easily enough in the book, for instance training the tiger, takes him more effort and time in the film. Everything that Martel did seemingly purely for the shock value is missing.
I don’t mean to say that the movie is all flowers and romanticism; it’s still frightening (as well it should be). The sadness, the desolation, the fear, these are all still there, but entwined with beauty and wonder and hope. They twist and turn and dance throughout the movie, until the ending—rather than dragging you further into despair by making you wonder why Pi even bothers, which is what the book did to me—shows hope and awe win out, letting the wonder of the world wash the fear and sorrow away.
So the movie I unhesitatingly give a 10/10.
And now, having watched the movie, I’m afraid that my evaluation of the novel has gone down. Because, having watched the movie, it was truly driven home that all Martel had was a premise with more potential than he had the skills to portray, and while his prose is excellent, the story was lacking. So my evaluation is down to a 3/10: worth reading if you’re really interested, but not otherwise.