Li(f)e of Pi: Suckering the People All of the Time

life of pi movie posterWhat does The Life of Pi have in common with Christopher Columbus and the current Western psyche?

Christopher Columbus tried to find India and landed in North America. The above historical juxtaposition of the great explorer’s 1492 crossing the Atlantic blue makes for a strong tale. Whether one believes Columbus accelerated the development of western civilization or started the genocide of two continents’ worth of indigenous peoples and cultures, we have to admit Queen Isabella’s chosen sailor is the stuff of legends.

No wonder Columbus comes up in Life of Pi, a 2012 movie directed by Ang Lee. Winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Director, and based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, Life of Pi is a serious saga about a boy and beast. The adventurous plot touches upon issues of death and loss, faith and friendship, and human ingenuity against the natural law of survival. Briefly, the plot revolves around Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), a sixteen-year-old Hindu boy who travels to Canada with his family and their zoo. Unfortunately, the boat sinks and only Pi survives with a few of his family’s animals. Of the group, only Pi and a Bengal tiger named “Richard Parker” (played by CGI; in the novel, Parker is the hunter who captured the beast) make it out alive. Emotionally charged, the film is heralded as an epic tribute to the human spirit.

Or not. The plot winds its way effectively through melodramatic twists and turns until it reaches the ending. The O. Henry—or Twilight Zone, depending on your pop culture preference—finale questions the above narrative. Were the animals really stand-ins for other human survivors? Did Pi’s mother die trying to save her son from an attack by a spotty hyena/chef? Did Pi kill the hyena/chef and then survive by feasting on the corpse’s innards until they reached Mexico? The question supposedly gnaws at the audience as they leave the theaters.

The tale suggests this alternate narrative, and then quickly tosses it aside. Pi’s re-casting his human co-survivors as animals makes for a “better story.” The Canadian novelist Yann Martel whom he is telling this to says as much, adding, “It’s an amazing story.” The Japanese insurers’ report says the same thing, calling Patel’s story “astounding” and full of “courage and endurance unparallel in the history of ship-wrecks.” They also agree “few castaways can claim to have survived so long, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.” The screenwriters are doing more than patting themselves on the back; the film sets a fictitious narrative about animals and carnivorous islands above a more gruesome, but more probable, other. The official report does not specifically state Pi’s first story is true, but use it as a convenient cover-up for the boat’s sinking, playing up Pi’s epic struggle to deflect the more horrific story of the human tragedy.

What Pi does in asking everyone to believe in his Richard Parker story is to deflect the greater tragedy of human loss, simply because his version is more aesthetically pleasing. Never mind that his story is impossible (from both science [as one insurance agent notes, bananas don’t float, thus negating the orangutan’s initial survival] and fantasy [the man-eating island which “no one has seen” before or since]), all parties agree Pi’s first story is the better one because it’s more entertaining and more palatable (pun intended) than a sordid cannibalistic tale on the part of the teenage hero.

But as entertaining as Pi’s story is, that everyone accepts it as the “truth” because it’s more fun reflects a larger American culture of narcissism and celebrity culture. By sticking to his story of fantastic survival, Pi taps into a societal preference for sensationalism and self-glory instead of a sobering examination of sadder realities. According to David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character (2015), this belief in self-importance, even delusional fantasy, is on the rise in the American psyche.

The increasing sophistication of technological social networking has given users the potential to rise from anonymity to worldwide celebrity. In a recent article from the Economist, fame has become a priority among young people, with twice as many middle school girls asserting they would rather become a personal assistant for a celebrity than the president of Harvard. According to a September 2015 article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, consistent case studies have rated Americans as perceiving other Americans more narcissist (and, along those lines, more disagreeable) than other groups.

This feel-good mythos becomes preferred to the alternate narrative of what “really” happened—more terrible, perhaps, but one much more probable. That Martel readily accepts the tiger story because it is a “better” story speaks to his skills as a novelist. However, that the official report also tactfully embraced Pi’s narrative suggests a blurring of a “white” lie with the sordid facts. The end result is a fantastic story, but one comprised of lies.

Unfortunately for Pi’s story, however, if we are to celebrate his “journey of a lifetime”—as the film’s tagline reads—then audiences must also accept, appreciate, and even embrace the events which make this epic possible. If the Patels had reached Canada without incident, Pi would surely have led a happy life, but one surely not worthy of attention. Instead, the Patels would have a zoo, Richard Parker would live in a cage, and their lives would have played out in a more peaceful, if mundane, way.

Instead, if Pi is to become a media sensation, then Pi must legitimize his story as an event worthy of celebrity culture. Everything leads up to the boy’s stay with the tiger. Pi’s family has to die in order for the teenager to acquire fame as a solo hero who makes his way across an ocean unaided. Rather than have his mother survive the boat’s sinking and meet a heroic end defending her son, Pi chooses to remember her by turning her into an ape. Pi then quickly diverts our attention away from their deaths—his narrative requires an isolated, individualized tale ending in self-aggrandizement, not reflect the horrors of human taboos—like cannibalism and murder—because any association with the ugly side of human existence would taint his esteem in the eyes of public consumption. Pi’s tale valorizes him in the spirit of Robinson Crusoe, the fanciful survivor whose wits and ingenuity thwarted nature’s primeval designs, and not the Donner Party, whose dubious historical legacy curiosity-seekers shake their heads at in pity. Pi says “what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye. I was never able to thank my father for all I learned from him. To tell him, without his lessons I would never have survived.” And why not? Everything that happened was in his head. Couldn’t he write in this scene? The answer: no, because it makes his tragedy a better story. In writing his narrative, he not only kills off his family, but he shifts the blame for the chef’s death (and consequent devouring of the corpse) from himself to the tiger. Pi is absolved from all wrongdoing because that’s the way he, and his fans, want it.

Thus, Pi’s story—and the movie—quickly avoid any examination of the “facts” and settle for superhero-esque escapism as Pi struts his stuff. The death of the Patel family becomes inconsequential—merely emotional brownie points for audience sympathy. But surely this doesn’t really come as a surprise, does it? After all, if we are to believe him, Pi’s early years were filled with revisionism. Young Piscine Molitor Patel renames himself because his given name sounded like “Pissing”—rather than become an “elegant French swimming pool” he had the unsavory connection to “a stinking Indian latrine.” So he switched monikers to one that sounded better: a mathematical ratio that has no end. Fittingly, his revised biography also has no limits as he taps into fairytale animals, exotic locations, and fantastic events to construct a romantic identity neatly fit for public consumption.

And we eat it up.

But if we are to take Pi’s question seriously, when he asks which story he prefers, there is no reason why audiences must accept anything he has said in the movie as factual. If Pi simple wants to make a good tale, then this opens up the entire plot to scrutiny. Did Pi even have a family; maybe he was a stowaway and he made them up for sympathy. Did he actually bond with a tiger and believe they have souls? Or does this merely set the gullible Martel up for the staging grounds for Pi’s raging waters raft ride later on? The tiger is the crucial point, since the animal killed the villainous hyena, acted as the focal point of Pi’s movie experience, and served as a symbol for Pi’s spiritual and emotional growth. If there was no tiger, then Pi would have no story. If the tiger never existed (did the Mexicans care that a wild tiger was let loose on their shore?), as his alternate tale implies, then he manipulated the audience for two hours for nothing. In removing the tiger, he would have nothing but a grim tale of his eating human flesh as a means of survival. He, like the upsetting, real-life refugees from Syria or Africa, illegal immigrants from Mexico, or Chinese smugglers, would just be a lost boy with a sad story to tell. Given the recent headlines about the limits of American/First World empathy for these real-life folks, Pi’s fame would be dubious indeed.

The answer: turn Pi into a celebrity. The final report from the Japanese insurance company accepts Pi’s words. Therefore, the audience has an “official” recognition for the film’s plot as the truth, even if it is not based on facts. It does make a better story: it hoodwinked moviegoers to buy tickets, critics to swoon, and awards to rain down on Pi’s luckless fifteen minutes of fame. This “journey of a lifetime” plays upon Pi’s and the audience’s “feel-good” culture, a social emphasis on self-esteem rather than facing ugly truths. Pi, what a life!

Peter Lee

Peter Lee

Peter W. Lee is a doctoral candidate at Drew University, where he focuses on American history and youth culture. His dissertation examines the construction of boyhood through American films in the early Cold War. Among his most recent publications are chapters in The Ages of the Avengers, Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, and The Journal of the West.
Peter Lee