Director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee have done an excellent job of adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi to film. When I read the book back in 2004 I thought at the time it would never be made into a film because the novel was too cerebral, too narrative heavy, plus, how could anyone get a tiger to do all that acting?
Life of Pi the film covered a surprising amount of the content of Life of Pi the book. So far I can think of just three scenes I missed. First, story of Pi’s family running into Pi’s three religious leaders. Second, showing how Pi used turtles to survive, and finally, the scene where Pi is blind and hears people in another life raft.
Still, Lee and Magee beautifully succeeded with capturing the philosophical heart of the novel. If you loved the book, go see the film, you’ll be surprised by how well it was filmed.
Is God the Better Story?
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, don’t read beyond this point if you plan do either, because I’m going to analyze the philosophical statement of the book and it will spoil the story.
In the main story, a boy from India, Piscine Molitor Patel, who wants to be called Pi, is shipwreck in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena and a tiger named Richard Parker. Martel tells us this story very realistically and we are expected to believe it happened. But along the way, Martel takes us through scenes that are very hard to believe, like the carnivorous island with the meerkats.
Yann Martel has crafted a Zen kōan into a novel. Most kōans are short, “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” Yann Martel essentially asks, “Is God the better story?”
At the beginning of the novel and movie, in a pseudo introduction, the author is told by an older Pi, that he can tell the author a story that will make him believe in God. Yann Martel creates two stories, one very long, elaborate, fantastic, awe inspiring – and brutal, and a second that is short and brutal. We are asked which one we prefer. Martel is right, everyone, including realists like me, will pick the story with Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.
So where does God come in? How can this story make us believe in God? Analyzing fiction for symbolism is tricky, but for me, Richard Parker represents God though analogy. At the end of the film and novel, when Pi has told his long fabulist story to two Japanese insurance investigators they refuse to believe him. So Pi tells a shorter, ugly version that we know is true, but hate to believe. Then Pi asks the investigators which story they prefer.
We all want to believe in the story where Richard Parker existed because it’s a better story than the one of madness, murder and cannibalism.
So what about the prediction at the beginning, that the story will make us believe in God? I believe Yann Martel uses the desire to believe in Richard Parker as a stand in for God, creating an analogy, that the readers and audience must make on their own. Pi desperately wants to believe in God. Pi asks us to believe in Richard Parker because the story of surviving in a lifeboat with a tiger is a better story than going mad and surviving alone.
The whole point of the novel is to trick the reader into the question: Which story do you prefer. Of course everyone prefers Richard Parker to be real. By transference, we’re ask to accept that belief in God is the better story, just like how we want to believe that Richard Parker existed. We’re never explicitly told that wanting to believe in Richard Parker is the same as wanting to believe in God, but I feel it’s obvious.
Yann Martel tells us people prefer religion over reality because the story of God is a better story than reality. And I ask: “Is this why people refuse to accept the fact of evolution because they prefer the story with Richard Parker – oh, I mean God?”
The novel is an elaborate metaphor to explain why people believe in God. It doesn’t say that God exists. Nor do we know what Yann Martel believes. It just says people prefers belief in God because it’s a better story than how we see reality directly.
What the novel is tricking us into confessing is that the belief in God, no matter how unbelievable that story might be, that it’s a better story than reality. That when we’re pushed to the ends of our physical and mental limits, we want God even if he’s cruel, vicious and indifferent. That the belief in God is what gets us through this life.
Has Yann Martel stacked the deck? Is God the better story? Yes, reality does sometime involve madness, murder and cannibalism. And even in the God story, people die, animals are cruelly killed and eaten, people suffer. If the audience was given the Richard Parker story, and a documentary about the evolution of the universe with cosmology and the evolution of life on Earth with evolutionary biology, is God still the better story. I don’t think so. Richard Parker is like a magician’s diversion. If you could watch this movie and blot out the tiger, the reality of Earth is magnificent! Richard Parker and God divert our attention to our fantastic reality.
God is only the better story when you don’t understand reality. Richard Parker is ferocious, terrifying, cruel, indifferent and doesn’t answer prayers. No matter how much Pi loves Richard Parker and wants his recognition, Richard Parker ultimately refuses to acknowledge Pi’s existence.
So why is God the better story if Richard Parker just walks away from us? I know many people who have long given up religion but haven’t given up on God. They say that God must have created us but walked away from the universe and is no longer involved. Personally, I’m confident there is no God and the size, age and origin of reality is beyond our understanding. I find it far more comforting to know the rules of our local universe and not feel the need to blame a superior being for bad things or beg for good things. If a bacteria, shark, drunk driver hurts me badly, I just accept it was the luck of the draw and not a judgmental deity deciding I had done something wrong.
Where the metaphor of Richard Parker breaks down is Pi can see Richard Parker, and we never see God. It’s actually easier to believe in Richard Parker than it is to believe on God. Life of Pi is a wonderful novel. I’ve read I twice now. And each time I want to believe the Richard Parker story, even though I know the truth is the story about cannibalism. How many times will I have to read this book before the realistic story is the better story?
What if the novel and movie had been about a boy that survived 227 days on the ocean and had endured the incident with cannibalism and madness and survived. No tiger, no zebra, no hyena, no orangutan, just Pi, his mom, the Frenchman and the Buddhist sailor? It would have been brutal, but the success of Pi surviving the ordeal would have been just as magnificent.
Why do we want a better story? Santa Claus is a better story than parents buying kids Christmas gifts from Target. The Easter Bunny is a better story than throwing milk teeth in the garbage. Heaven is a better story than dying. But why is God a better story than reality? Is God a better story than evolution? If you understood evolution and cosmology, God isn’t the better story. God is a simpler story, and God’s story is endlessly confusing and contradictory. It’s just God is fantastically powerful like Richard Parker.
Even though I disagree with Yann Martel’s assertion, I love his fiction. See, that’s the real revelation in this. Fiction is the better story, and Life of Pi is very good fiction. Humans embraces fiction with an intense passion. Richard Parker is a better character than a cannibalistic Frenchman. And for many people, all the stories about God, are a better story than the brutal aspects of reality. However, there is nothing in fiction that comes within light years of evolution. All stories about God are just crude children stories compared to the complexity and beauty of evolution. Evolution is just as brutal as the Old Testament God – it’s just not personal.
Here’s the final kōan: Did Yann Martel write this story to make us atheists or make us believers in fiction?
JWH – 11/28/12