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‘Life of Pi’: the Prettiness of the Soul and the Disneyfication of Literature

Please let me make one think clear from the beginning… okay, maybe two things.

First, I like Ang Lee’s screen version of Life of Pi, which opens in theaters across the U.S. today. I really do. And though the film may now be a tiny bit different than when I saw it just prior to its premiere at the New York Film Festival, I can’t imagine that its numerous strengths are gone. I love how literate script is, and the way it preserves the novel’s central theme of individualist (and therefore mystical) spirituality while streamlining much of the early narrative. The performances are spot-on, if not outright moving, and of course you already know that this film is beyond-stunning in visual terms.

So then why, after seeing it however many weeks ago, has my enthusiasm for it gradually waned? Could it be that the staying power of its spectacle has diminished? Possibly. But what of the memorable allegory about humankind and Creation, the way the story manages to evoke heaven-on-earth glory and existential reflection?

Okay, so here’s where things start to break down, and I hope you’ll forgive me as I’m still working out some of this (and welcome your input). Oh, and now might be a good time to announce that second item I wanted to make clear: textual changes are made when novels become holiday movies that are financed and distributed by big-time media publishers such as Fox. That’s not only fine, it’s necessary. Yes, this is the old “Art vs. Commerce” conversation, but not conducted as a shrill complaint but as a mature approach that recognizes how the two work hand in hand to give us the large-scale texts we know and (sometimes) love. (And understanding this aspect of the process is what sets a media literate analysis of film adaptations apart from an overly simplistic “fidelity studies” approach.)

At the risk, then, of sounding, well, dumb, I’d like to ask “What does spiritual mean to us, culturally?” Sure, one could write a book (or several books) on this subject, but if this isn’t a point worth discussing with readers/fans of Life of Pi, I’m not sure what is. To clarify, is it desirable when creating a work about the human spirit to include only the sacred and none of the profane? How about focusing solely on the grace of God (and/or Allah or Krishna, as Pi might have it) as it’s present in the act of surviving against impossible odds… and deliberately neglecting the down-and-dirty real-world facts of what it takes, in fact, to survive? In sum, does a fully dimensional piece of art show us only the dazzling stained glass window but none of the sweat, let alone sin, that it both responds to and helps redeem?

Sure, per Fox PR, Pi “must battle… nature” but it’s a very clean version of nature.

No, I’m not suggesting that the filmmakers behind Life of Pi should have emulated the kind of Catholic artists who have felt they had to stress the unseemly and ugly in order to convey its opposite; I’m talking about Robert Bresson, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor. You know, geniuses—but not the kind of names one associates with nine-figure budgets.

To be more indelicate, I’m also not suggesting that in the film Pi should be depicted, per the novel, as contemplating drinking his own urine or actually attempting to dine on Richard Parker’s, um, solid waste. (And hey, sorry if these are spoilers, but I’m trying to focus on what’s not in the film: if that bugs you, kindly stop reading and return later… but please know that I don’t give away any key info about the film.) Indeed, this version of Life of Pi presents a Richard Parker who’s so allegorical that one doubts that he even has biological functions aside from growling and attacking (the advantage, I suppose, of using a CG tiger for many of the sequences). But could we at least have seen Pi trying to clean up after his companion—I mean, just a discreet, partial angle on him tossing something overboard, an image less graphic than when you see your neighbors scooping up after their dogs?

No? Still too “earthy”? Okay, then how about the lethal aggression R.P. exhibits late in the novel, a passage that’s completely missing from the movie…?

Oh, also not a good idea? Got it. That would make him too unsympathetic and thus undercut the highbrow boy-and-dog tale that the movie subtly devolves into. All right, then since my ideas don’t work, let’s consider author Yann Martel’s quasi-issue with the film as made public by The Hollywood Reporter:

“In the novel, he remains a true tiger, as in there’s never a notion of friendship. They definitely have a relationship; that’s why Pi doesn’t leave him on the island. But it always remains one of coexistence laced with dominance and fear and caution. In the movie, that scene where…

—wait, stop right there; I said I’d try to avoid movie spoilers, and there we just narrowly missed running over one as it darted into the road in front of us. Let’s just say that for Martel the conception of one of the main characters—and, heck, for most of the story there are only two characters—has been altered so that the outcome is something radically different tonally, philosophically, and theologically. He’s too politic to come out and say that, but I’ll do it for him and on behalf of all the readers who appreciated the novel’s emotional and intellectual honesty even as it disguised its harder truths with amazing flights of fancy.

The end result, I’m sorry to report, is a film that resonates as more-thoughtful-than-most-Disneyfied texts, but that’s about it. And in an age when Disney pictures are themselves not as “Disney” as they used to be (the company’s licensing, branding, and non-film media are a different issue), maybe that’s not such a harsh condemnation. In which case, good, I’m happy it isn’t. Again, I do like the film and wish it commercial success for several reasons. I just would have been happier still if the Pacific Ocean hadn’t been presented as the ultimate 4D thrill ride, with a remote deity flicking the switches and collecting the tickets but never needing to hose things down. Of course in a cosmology as pretty and clean as Ang Lee’s, why should she?

About Peter Gutierrez