BY THE BOOK
I read Yann Martel's wondrous book "Life of Pi" in 2013 for my book club. I remember reading the synopsis and not being very eager to dive into it. It sounded a bit like fantasy - being stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger - and apart from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I'm not a big fan of that genre. But I also noticed the terrific reviews it received along with winning the Man Booker Prize. And while I generally take reviews with a grain of salt regarding music and movies, I rely on them pretty regularly when it comes to literature. So encouraged by the good reviews and accolades along with the pressure of my book club meeting, I gave it a try.
I was pleasantly surprised to be engrossed in it right from the start. And by the time I completed it, I felt genuine relief that the main character, Pi, had reached an end to his ordeal. That's not a spoiler exactly. If you watch the film, you know from the start that he will survive because the film beings with him telling his story to a writer. In the book, there's no writer; the reader just goes along with Pi on his journey. So I guess that's a spoiler. Sorry.
The story introduces Pi growing up in India with his father, mother and brother. His father owns a zoo, and Pi has a great affinity for the animals. He also develops a fervent interest in religion and begins to embrace multiple theologies, much to his father's chagrin. As Pi becomes a young man, he manages to remain respectful of his father's advice and tough lessons while still honoring his own truths.
But just as Pi begins to discover that most mysterious of belief systems - romantic love - with a local girl, he learns that his family must move to Canada and start a new life. They are taking the animals with them - not to start another zoo, but to sell. During a stormy night on rough seas, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself the lone human survivor on a life boat. His companions are a lame zebra, a hyena, a matriarchal orangutan and a ferocious Bengal tiger.
Apart from the addition of the writer, the movie stays pretty true to the book, and I enjoyed watching what I read come to life. My only quibble in that regard is how the orangutan comes to join Pi and his other stowaways on his little boat. In the book, her arrival is described as majestic and heartwarming as she rides a wave atop a big bunch of bananas. Ang Lee is a masterful director, but I didn't feel the emotional heft of that moment in the film. I consider it a minor point, though, and I commend Lee for doing a fantastic job of conveying all the other magical elements of the book on the screen.
Getting to know Pi throughout his childhood exploration and adoption of several different religions was heartening. It reinforced the notion of how everything does not have to be all or nothing, black or white, when it comes to our beliefs. And his struggle to survive on the boat is informed by his open acceptance of God. When he finally comes through the experience, landing on the Mexican shore, he eventually has to tell how he came to be stranded on a boat with a motley crew of jungle creatures and how he survived. But the tale of his ordeal is found too fantastic for the practically minded pencil pushers to whom he has to recount it. So Pi tells another more realistic story to explain what he had been through, and he asks his audience - the insurance men in the book and the writer in the movie - which story they prefer. And that is the question the movie goers and the readers must ask themselves. Do you embrace the fantastic or the pragmatic? What is more appealing? What is more life-affirming? What is the truth?