Sunday, November 25, 2012

Storytelling and Incredulity

The new film version of Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee and starring the  wide-eyed and captivating Saraj Sharma in the title role, is (exactly as the posters promise) an "epic journey of adventure and discovery."  And that's the problem with it.

I read Life of Pi shortly after it was released years ago and I found the book transformative not only of my longstanding prejudice against the genre of magical realism but also of many of my own deep philosophical commitments and understandings: of tragedy and redemption, of nature, of the relationship between human and non-human animals, of religious exploration and, perhaps most of all, of the morally, psychologically, metaphysically and epistemologically complex practice of autobiographical storytelling.  It's impossible, of course, to avoid comparing cinematic renderings of literature against against the works that inspired them, a comparison that almost always finds the former deficient, but few stories insist upon that comparison more than Life of Pi.  Martel's novel, like the film, is also an epic journey of adventure and discovery-- recounting 227 life-altering, inspiring, terrifying and often gruesome days at sea of its protagonist Pi aboard a tiny lifeboat-menagerie-- but Martel's Life of Pi was much more than standard bildungsroman fare.  It was, in the end, as much about Pi's telling the story of the "life of Pi" as it was about the events and adventures of Pi's very unusual life.  As it is framed in both the novel and the film, the story of the "life of Pi" is one that "will make you believe in God."  Given those profound theological stakes, in both the novel and the film, the rest of us hearing/reading/watching are not only prompted, but compelled, to ask of the story of the life of Pi: but is it true?

[*Spoiler alert*: The following will include some spoilers if you haven't read the book, though you should be fine if you haven't seen the film.  In either case, I wouldn't count these as devastating spoilers, but I try to keep spoilers to a minimum on this blog and to alert readers when they're coming.]

The large part of the novel/film is told as flashback, with the adult "survivor" Pi narrating his life to a writers-blocked writer who is looking for a story not only to write, but to believe, if not also a story that can make belief itself possible.  That the "life of Pi" is so unbelievable is, therefore, not a merely accidental element of Life of Pi.  It is the heart of the story.  Having recounted his quite literally impossible story of survival to insurance investigators attempting to account for the shipwreck of which Pi was the lone survivor, and having included in his recounting a quite literally fantastical story of a boy's endurance for almost a year at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, the adult Pi finds himself face-to-face with the insurance agents' faces of incredulity.  So, Pi re-tells the story of the life of Pi, this second time substituting the literal for the metaphorical, the plausible for the incredible, the likely for the impossible.  No one knows-- not the insurance investigators, not Pi's family, not his newfound writer-friend and even less so we, the audience-- what, if anything, of Pi's story is true.  Only Pi knows.  And so Pi asks: "Since you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?" 

What is at stake in Pi's question is a deeply philosophical, deeply existential and deeply moral issue that seems unique to the particular kind of animal we are, these reflective talking-apes that we call "human."  We find our lives shot through and through with accident, elements of the unlikely, and yet it is in our constitution to find these accidents indicative of something more and to try to weave out of their chaos not only a life, but the story of a life.  Sometimes those accidents are thoroughly, boringly, mundane.  Sometimes they are brilliant, gesturing toward the transcendent.  And sometimes they are horribly, painfully, gruesomely and unimaginably tragic.  Martel, through Pi, insists that the stories that we tell of ourselves, what we are able to achieve and to endure and to survive, "give things a meaningful shape."  Whether or not those stories are factually, forensically true, whether or not we can believe them or persuade others to believe them, is as much a matter of volition as it is a matter of verification.  The story of the life of Pi is the story of a survivor of unspeakable tragedy.  And yet, like all survivor stories, it is a story that must be spoken.   Life of Pi is a story about what sorts of stories we prefer.

I worry a little that Ang Lee was so enamored with the opportunity to tell this "epic journey of adventure and discovery" in all of its stunning CGI-manipulated detail that he missed the point of Martel's work, which is not, in the end, really about the "journey" or the "adventure," however epic they may be.  In fact, Lee's images are so arresting, so captivating and so believable that they may even have gotten in the way of Martel's (and Pi's) story... a story about "discovery," in particular, the discovery of which sorts of stories we prefer to tell about life.  To be fair, there are moments in Lee's film that are sublime, even beautiful, and to the extent that Pi's adventure must be held in that liminal space between the possible and the impossible, Lee's rendering does accomplish that.  But I, for one, could have stood for more of the subtlety of Lee's Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm-- both of which exhibited truly admirable aesthetic restraint for the sake of emotional, psychological and narrative intensity-- and less of the technical cine-gymnastics of Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hulk.  Martel's Life of Pi warns against the kind of myopic dedication to factuality that might lead one to "miss the better story."  Ang Lee's Life of Pi, perhaps, errs in the other direction; that is, Lee is so dedicated to the incredible story that he may have inadvertently robbed his audience of the chance to decide that the incredible is just, well, not credible.  There are as many good reasons to prefer the factually true as there are to prefer the fantastically true, and I'm not sure that Lee's film presses hard enough on the tough decision between them.

If the story of the life of Pi persuades you to believe in God, or in human endurance and perseverance, or in the survivability of tragedy, or in the virtue of allowing for the possibility of the impossible, then it no doubt will be a transformative story.  But so also will it be if you remain unpersuaded of any of these.

1 comment:

MSdos5602 said...

I'm glad that you put your opinion to words- I was of two minds as to seeing the film, and now I have to, if only to test whether I agree or not with you. I have read this book, and it was amazing. I would be sad to know the film did not reflect this.