Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Posted on February 5, 2013
I first saw the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when I was in high school. Say what you will about its faults (the actors were melodramatic, at times poorly dubbed, and frequently defied the laws of physics), but its philosophical treatment of martial arts and ill-fated love warmed the cockles of my adolescent heart. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is probably best described as an epic tale of adventure and love, but it borrows from numerous film genres: ethnography, action movie, fable, etc. While its cinematography is nothing short of breath-taking, I would characterize director Ang Lee’s overall style as “soothingly sumptuous.” The fight scenes–full of aerial gymnastics and frenetic drums–are counterbalanced by peaceful conversations passing between Master Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (played by Michelle Yeoh). Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien function as Jedi Master archetypes–contemplating virtue, truth, and beauty while immersed in a world both lush and dangerous.
Two scenes stand out in my mind. The first occurs when Li Mu Bai is attempting to instruct a precocious young protege in the art of armed combat. They have a bit of a falling out and decide to settle their grievances with a sword fight atop bamboo trees. You can view the full scene (un-subtitled and non-dubbed) Here. The swaying of the bamboo boughs, slow motion closeups, and pulsing background strings–the scene’s heartbeat–lend this portion of the film a dreamlike beauty. The second scene, found Here, occurs at the conclusion of the film. Don’t watch it unless you’ve already seen the movie or don’t mind having the ending spoiled. All I’ll say about it is Yo-Yo Ma is the Yo-Yo Man.
While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is certifiably great, it’s not my favorite Ang Lee film. That honor belongs to Hulk, Lee’s masterful retelling of a comic book classic. Never before (or since) has computer animation been able to so vividly portray the primal power of rampant anger.
I am, of course, kidding; Hulk is far from my favorite Ang Lee film. Life of Pi–Lee’s movie adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel of the same name–is. And it just received 11 Oscar nominations, so, you know, no big deal.
I am ashamed to admit that, yes, I saw Life of Pi the movie before I read the book. According to the binding resolutions established during the 5th annual English Teacher Symposium (1968), it is incumbent upon me to immediately relinquish my teaching credentials and find another line of work. I know, I know. But before I do, let me go out in a blaze of glory and admit that I also saw film adaptations of The Wizard of Oz, Coriolanus, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory before ever reading their respective book/play predecessors. I handled all the Harry Potter books appropriately–reading before seeing. Luckily, the Twilight series will never present a seeing or reading temptation for me. Feels good to get that off my chest.
It wasn’t for lack of effort effort on my friends’ part that I neglected to read Life of Pi before seeing the movie. During college, a good friend lent me the book for approximately 2 years (actually, I’m not sure I ever gave it back to him). I started it, read to the part where Pi Patel and his family are about to set off on their voyage across the Atlantic, and then, for some inexplicable reason, stopped. In retrospect, I think I needed to discover the book on my own schedule and according to my own terms. Sometimes, books/movies are sooo popular that you chafe against the very idea of acceding to popular consensus and giving them an audience.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing that makes Life of Pi (the movie) great. I saw it in 3D in the theaters. When the end credits began to roll, my mouth was as dry as a cotton ball from having watched, slacked-jaw in wonderment, the visual tour-de-force. It is a movie that irresistibly convinces you that film can be a powerful story-telling medium–almost on par with books. And it is a movie that is aesthetically pleasing beyond all measure.
Having seen the movie, I was now (finally) ready to delve into the book. I had the weird experience of hoping a book was as good as its movie. How many times does that happen? I took off my 3D glasses, plopped on my regular spectacles, and read.
The first thing you will notice upon reading Life of Pi is how beautifully layered the story is. It is a frame story, a bildungsroman, an allegory, a spiritual treatise, and a good ole’ fashioned adventure tale. While the movie is able to faithfully render the veneer of the story, it fails to adequately capture the multivalent wisdom of Pi Patel’s narrative voice. Patel is a relentless philosopher, casting seemingly chance events in meaning’s light. Especially admirable is his ability to reconcile and embrace the religious traditions of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. While most people adopt the religious practices of their family, Patel unaffectedly learns about and admires Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. He is the uber-guru-prophet-monk.
The second thing you will notice about the novel, Life of Pi, is how deftly Martel is able to suspend your disbelief. Of course Patel is trapped on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger. Of course he is able to tame the lion (humorously named Richard Parker) and survive on the desolate sea for hundreds of days. Of course Patel, after going blind from lack of food and water, bumps into another survivor in another lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. All of these events, considered in the cold, clear light of reason, would appear fantastical, but Martel makes you believe them. At the very least you want to believe them. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, time and gravity seem to be temporarily suspended. In Life of Pi, it is reality itself that is unseated.
The final thing you will observe about this book is how true to the human experience it is. We tell stories about ourselves and our lives to survive. These stories, when composed in response to the doldrums of daily life, are often nothing but harmless half-truths. “I lead a healthy lifestyle (even though I ate 3 doughnuts for breakfast)”. “I am a dedicated worker (even though I enjoy taking 45 minutes to 1 hour for lunch)”. “I am a good friend (even though I never send my friends Christmas cards or write on their Facebook walls for their birthdays)”. We rationalize away the parenthetical elements of our lives.
But what happens–as is the case in Life of Pi–when those parenthetical elements are dire, disturbing, and bleak? Our rationalizations must compensate; they must become inflated and grand. Grave circumstances require brave stories. Life of Pi does a fine job of demonstrating this somewhat depressing truth in a beautiful way.
Whether you don 3D or reading glasses, I urge you to experience Life of Pi. It’s a story you won’t soon forget.
P.S. – Here’s hoping Bill Watterson comes out of retirement to make this parody: