life of pi

My birthday was yesterday (the big 3-0!) and my husband wanted to take me out for dinner and movie… except I don’t really keep up with what’s new in cinema these days. I did however hear about Life of Pi‘s recent film release, but I hadn’t read the book yet, so last weekend I bought a used copy and read it really quickly this week, finished just in time to see the film last night.

I remember when Yann Martel’s Life of Pi first came out about ten years ago—I was in college and some friends were reading it; most said it was amazing, and of course there was the media hype. I also heard some rants that it was too religious and preachy, which turned me off, and back then I wasn’t so interested in stories of adventure and survival either. The book quickly dropped from my radar (and again, I didn’t have much opportunity to read much for pleasure during college anyway).

As with my reading The Hobbit last month, it took a movie release to kick my butt into gear with reading the book first. I don’t feel like Life of Pi completely lived up to the hype for me, but I was certainly entertained.

Pi is a bookish, sensitive, and curious boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India, where his father owned and ran the local zoo. His intellectual and spiritual curiosity leads him to begin practicing the three major religions concurrently: Hindu, Christianity, and Islam. With the onset of India’s Emergency under Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s leadership, Pi’s family sells the zoo and embarks on a Japanese freighter to Canada, with several animals in tow for delivery to North American zoos. After the freighter sinks in a storm, Pi ends up castaway in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Before long, Richard Parker and Pi are the only souls left on the boat, and Pi must do all he can to survive the seas and his predatory travel companion.

I enjoyed Life of Pi a lot… until the ending sort of tainted it for me. Part I—Pi’s childhood in India—is enchanted and interesting, and his enthusiasm for all three religions is thought-provoking: faith and spirituality is personal, yet we don’t know about religion until we are introduced to it by someone. We can choose to express our faith within the organization of a religion, but how different are the many religions, really? Is one really “right” over any others? Why do we have to choose just one? and so on. I think if you can read all of Part I in one or two sittings, it is more effective. I can see how this section could drag if you have to break up your reading time a lot.

Part II—the survival adventure on the lifeboat—was exciting and I could hardly put the book down during this section. I’ve gradually become more interested in tales of survival, nonfiction mostly. But the danger element with the animals was so original and compelling to me, as well as the agonizing test of faith for such a devout person. There were many scenes on the lifeboat that left me breathless, horrified, intrigued, and in awe. The mysterious floating island was a powerful turning point in the book for Pi’s mental state.

But then Part III felt like Martel was shoving the moral and symbolism down my throat. Pi’s harrowing survival on the Pacific is really a story within the story of an author looking for something to write. For me, personally, I wish Life of Pi had been just that: the life of Pi. I think I would have been totally blown away by the book if it weren’t for the author character and that angle. I get why the epilogue is there for further exploration of the questions of faith, a tested psyche, animalistic survival instinct, and plausibility, imagination, and escapism in storytelling and how it all relates to belief in God that are brought up in the first parts of the book, but I felt suddenly yanked out of the amazing adventure I just experienced. The ending turned everything black and white for me instead of an array of breathtaking colors. You are either a believer or not. Are those really the only options? Of course, Pi doesn’t have a very high opinion of agnostics in Part I… so… there you go.

Life of Pi is great in that its message will be different for everyone, and if it doesn’t make you “believe in God” it will make you ponder your interpretation of events and the world.

As for the film, it was visually stunning and worth seeing, and the 3D was great too. The film follows the book pretty closely, almost as close as a movie can. However, they added an unnecessary love interest for Pi in the movie (OF COURSE, ugh) and I wish a few awesome scenes in the lifeboat had been included (no tiger fighting a shark??), but overall it was very respectful of the book’s tone and message.

Read from December 5 to 8, 2012.

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