Some of you have heard about or seen the movie, The Life of Pi, which just came out. It’s based on the 2001 book by Yann Martel, a gifted storyteller with an eye for detail. It’s like no other book I’ve read. It captivated me then and the visually stunning movie, which I just saw with Allison, my daughter, is equally fascinating.
It’s a story about survival and coping with what life throws at us. A real conversation starter. Although presented as a children’s story—it includes a lot of animals—it’s really an adult book. Most of the animals don’t survive to the end of the story. The premise—how a sixteen-year-old boy could survive with a Bengal tiger for months on a lifeboat—is unbelievable, yet Martel made it plausible.
The boy, Pi, grows up on the grounds of a zoo owned by his father. Spiritually sensitive, Pi finds himself drawn to religion — all religions. He was born a Hindu and worships Hindu gods, but soon he also embraces Jesus, Mary and Mohammed. Every week, he worships at the Hindu temple, the Catholic church and the Islamic mosque.
Then Dad, who says all religion is darkness, decides they’ll move from India to Canada. They take a number of the animals to sell in America. En route, their ship goes down in a savage storm and Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and the tiger. Then it’s just Pi and the tiger.
Pi names his savage passenger Richard Parker. Each day for Pi becomes an exercise in survival—finding food and catching rainwater (for him and the tiger) and staying out of the reach of Richard Parker’s claws. As the boat drifts alone for days and then months, a bond develops between Pi and the beast. “My fear of him keeps me alert,” Pi says. “Tending to his needs gives me purpose.” But this isn’t friendship. It is, however, something quite special. Pi says, “Without Richard Parker I would have died by now; I wouldn’t survive.”
He talks much about being grateful, often to God. Though the story is very well told and spiritually complex, it’s philosophically flawed. Pi describes himself as a Hindu Christian Moslem. The story incorporates all these disparate views. It’s not an atheistic movie but rather a film of faith; however, it’s also a mixture of religious fundamentalism which loses objective truth.
People with a mature Christian faith can enjoy the movie without conflict. For others, it can be very confusing. The movie refutes powerfully the idea that faith is “darkness” and it embraces what it means to be faithful—to surrender yourself to God and to trust him. And that was Pi’s situation—to give up in stark terror or to allow God to use him in order to survive. We glimpse the tremendous message that we might be next to a miracle.
There are some detrimental messages in the story—first, that all faiths lead to the same God, and secondly, that religion brings meaning into our lives regardless if it’s literally true or just an idea. Pi’s agnostic father speaks truth when he says that believing in everything is “the same as not believing in anything at all.” Certainly, the idea that all religions are true is just not reasonable or defensible. Jesus tells us very clearly that he is the only way to God. He rose from the grave—witnessed later by more than 500 people—to authenticate that truth.
The movie itself–Ang Lee made it even though it “couldn’t be done.” He employed the skills of hundreds of artists, many who worked around the clock to create sequences involving a neon whale splash and flying fish flashing over and into the boat. Shooting a movie with a tiger as a co-star presented many challenges, chief of which was to keep the young actor from being eaten. To do that, the tiger that primarily appears is a digital creation. The tiger looked plenty real to me. Both Allison and I confessed afterward that we jumped—more than once. Actually, four real tigers (with their trainer) were used in a few important shots, including when Richard Parker leaped out of the boat and swam in the ocean after a fish. The use of a real tiger posed a great risk, of course, but they wanted to set a high bar for their computer-generated imagery. Their artists delivered.
Yann Martel’s idea for The Life of Pi came from a review he read years previous about another book, Max and the Cats, a story about a Jewish family who run a zoo in Germany during the years leading up to the Holocaust. The family decides to leave Germany but their boat sinks and only one person survives, ending up on a lifeboat with a black panther. Martel loved the premise and years later, while in India, he recalled it and began working on his own story. For two years, he researched zoology, religion, survival at sea, etc., and then wrote his best-seller.
If you have read the book and/or saw the movie, what questions came to you? Perhaps you’d like to comment on these questions:
- How does God’s plan for human dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26) play out between Pi and Richard Parker on the lifeboat?
- Read Genesis 1:27. How did God make humans? How does being made in God’s image and having His breath in us make us different from animals?
- At one point, Pi compares an agnostic’s doubt to Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane and his cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). How are the purpose and cause of Christ’s suffering misunderstood by the author?
- The book claims that the story would convince a person to believe in God. Agree? Why or why not? What god/God?