My problem with ‘Life of Pi’

My problem with ‘Life of Pi’ May 14, 2013
Life of Pi
Claudio Gennari, Wikimedia Commons

Megan and I finally got around to watching Life of Pi. It’s a beautifully filmed and extravagant spectacle, but it didn’t work for us. When I first expressed my disappointment, I received several negative reactions. It’s a movie that seems either to resonate deeply or not at all. Here’s where it failed for me.

Pi’s survival adrift on the Pacific makes for gripping drama, all the more because he shares his lifeboat with an untamed Bengal tiger and also briefly with a wounded zebra, hyena, and orangutan. But the issue for me is how this drama is supposed to prove the reality of God.

That’s the promise, after all. A writer comes to Pi years after the shipwreck. He wants to hear the story because someone has told him that it “will make you believe in God.” And so Pi spins the yarn.

The principal elements prove metaphoric. There are some obvious clues that this is the case. The first is that the tiger — which earlier the father tells the son only reflects his own feelings — stays unseen in the boat until the moment it explodes upon the hyena and kills it. Second, the tiger flees unceremoniously the moment Pi reaches safety. The animal is in fact Pi’s fear, rage, and will to survive.

The metaphor works, particularly when we we realize that it’s also a mask. The tiger explodes upon the hyena because it has killed the zebra and orangutan. But all of the animals represent people, not just the tiger, and the reality is that a “resourceful” survivor has murdered a fellow shipmate to use as bait and food and has killed Pi’s mother as well. Pi dispatches the killer and then suppresses this version of events, presumably because of its horror. It’s too much to own.

I tracked right up to this point, and even had a good deal of sympathy for Pi. The disappointment was not in his use of the metaphor, but his response to the idea that ultimately you can choose between the metaphor and reality — that they are somehow equivalent and so it makes no difference which version you prefer.

After telling him both versions, Pi asks the writer which he favors, the one in which Pi knifes the bad man or the one in which he braves the sea with a big cat. Unsurprisingly, the man chooses the latter. “Thank you,” says Pi. “And so it goes with God.”

There are a few ways to look at that answer. Life of Pi novelist Yann Martel gives us his:

Pi makes a parallel between the two stories and religion. His argument (and mine) is that a vision of life that has a transcendental element is better than one that is purely secular and materialist. A story with God (“God” defined in the broadest sense) is the better story, I argue, just as I think the story with animals is the better story.

No doubt. But if your preferred story is just a self-made construct, then it’s not truly transcendent. It’s a brightly painted ceiling in the rather cramped closet of your own mind and experience.

Earlier in the movie, before the shipwreck, Pi begins a multifaith quest to discover the divine. Though his father is unbelieving, Pi is a pious Hindu, who later adopts Catholicism and Islam. He loves and practices all three faiths, despite their mutual contradictions. Though his rationalist father is upset with him for not choosing between them, the reality is that Pi has chosen.

Like the version of events at sea, Pi constructs his own version of God. It’s a fantastical and nonsensical version, but it’s his. The problem is that it no more honors the Jesus Pi claims to love than his fantasy honors the memory of his mother who was murdered and thrown to sharks.

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  • Matt Baugher

    Excellent thoughts, Joel. And if you keep writing such impressive movie reviews, you may give Frederica a run for her money. 🙂 Thanks for the perspective here.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Matt. Unfortunately, they’ll all be pretty late to the scene. Meg and I are about six or seven months tardy to anything we watch. 🙂

  • This is very, very helpful. It also proves that I should bever attempt to write movie reviews. You should do these as a regular feature of your blog. Love it!

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m glad it was helpful. There is a lot to like about the movie, but I found this aspect deeply dissatisfying.

  • Leah

    Thank you! My husband and I felt the same, but couldn’t articulate it as well as you. We also enjoyed the movie for its beautiful cinematography, but did not find it convincing. Pi thinks he proved that any form of God will lead you to a “better story” or a more beautiful life as long as you believe something, but as you said, all he really has done is created his own construct of God. Great point about how he does not honor God or his mother with this story that just makes him feel better about himself.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s the problem with ignoring reality. We all do it to a greater or lesser degree because we are limited and have limited perspectives. But to consciously choose something false is fundamentally selfish. Doesn’t his mother deserve to be honored by something better? Doesn’t Jesus deserve to be honored by the terms of his own profession? Pi denies them both that for his own gain.

  • Very articulate review. I agree with many of your observations. The film IS visually gorgeous, and the entire tiger metaphor is clever.

    My husband’s issue with the metaphor was that it completely blew away the previously constructed reality. What was real from the tiger story, if anything? Did Pi go out on the deck during the storm even? How did he find his mother? Etc, etc. Which, I suppose, makes for good cinema since it shocks the viewer.

    I agree with your issue with the concept that you can choose between the metaphor and the reality. To me, it didn’t fulfill the initial premise the movie set up about finding God.

    The movie was well filmed, and at least it provides for conversation, right?

    (Haha, I’m a former teacher… can you tell? I had to frame my thoughts with the “sandwich” approach of compliment-criticism-compliment. Wow. Old habits.)

    Thanks for such eloquent writing, Joel.

    • Joel J. Miller

      You bet. Thanks for reading.

  • Well said, Joel. This was my reaction (largely) after reading the book. Deep dissatisfaction with the point behind a brilliant and often beautiful tract for a deceptive and destructive religious dogma. (Haven’t seen the movie.)

    • Joel J. Miller

      I almost read the novel a few years back. Now I’m not certain I see the point.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    I love this line from your review Joel “It’s a brightly painted ceiling in the rather cramped closet of your own mind and experience.” Sums up very well the whole “I believe in everything/nothing” type of pan-theism that passes for faith these days. I suspected that this film and book was little more than an artfully made wrapper on sentimental existentialism (also called vitalism) This is even worse than athiestic existentialism, as it uses words like Jesus, and Allah, and Krishna, but strips them of all meaning-what Francis Schaeffer called the lowest level of despair. It is religion without substance and I have found that those who really believe this way are just looking for a religion that allows them to do whatever they want. You don’t have to obey Jesus, or Allah, or Krishna if they are not really who they say they are. Lord have mercy! I would take a devout muslim ANY day over these lukewarm pluralists. Great posts. Keep the movie reviews coming. You don’t need to review Ironman III, but if you focus on the spiritual ones you will be good.

  • Well said, Joel. “Pi constructs his own version of God” is the very point I couldn’t get past with this movie. While the visuals are stunning in the way they keep the viewer rapt to what’s next, in the end, it felt hallow and contradictory. Implying God would settle for conditional relationships and truths with his children.

  • So I took away a little different meaning… while I got the religious metaphor, I thought the reason pi made up the animal story was because, yes it wasmore palatable than what actually happened.. just like the different religions use the craft of story to get their point across. While there are obviously vast differences between the stories presented in different religions, each religion uses metaphors as pi did…to get the listener to understand.possibly because pi himself had experienced different religions, and became drawn in through the stories he heard .

  • As always Mr. Miller, well said and insightful. Thank you!

  • Nathaniel Winer

    From an atheist point of view, this story is worse than shallow and trite. Its actively insulting.

    The author behind this book clearly shows that he feels a secular view of the world is hollow, empty and ugly. The only thing such a thought shows to me is that the author needs to talk to some materialists if he wishes to actually understand them. Because he clearly doesn’t.

  • Luke Morgan

    The impression I got was that Pi told the EXACT same story to the two reporters at the end, with people instead of animals, because he knew that their small, narrow minds wouldn’t believe something they didn’t think was possible. So it is with faith, and God. As older Pi says – “both stories begin and end the same way, so which one do you prefer?”. Also in life, our only certainty is that we were born, and we will die. So, do we choose the story that is rooted in credible and “boring” (as he suggests), or the story that is incredible – the divine, the superb – as reflected by the tiger tale.

  • Gary C. Bourque


    I have to disagree with you. Although as a Christian I understand the impulse to judge Pi’s generalized version of God, the point of the movie was not to arrive at advanced theological specifics about God. It was to establish whether “the story” (i.e. life) is better with or without God. That was the simple message of the movie, and nothing more. Just like Pi’s survival story was better with the tiger, his life story is better with God. To try to say that is not biblical is to deny that the Bible itself says “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” The Bible doesn’t say knowing that to have the Father you need the Son is the beginning of wisdom, though it is true This movie is about beginnings, not endings. Pi never says all is settled and he has arrived at all the answers. As a matter of fact, he expresses just the opposite.

    Jesus is not the trick answer to a existential trick question. The point of the Gospel is not that people need to have the right religion about Jesus to get to God. The point is if they don’t see that Jesus is God they either don’t know enough about Jesus or don’t know enough about God. Pi’s faith is one that will eventually lead him to the right conclusions, even if he makes some wrong ones along the way.


  • Brett H

    In terms of a cinematic experience the film achieves well; in terms of leading people to God, it is leading them, not to God, but to multiple gods.

  • Alice

    I don’t think it’s saying that religion is only a fantasy to cope with reality. I think the point is that the audience can’t know for certain what really happened. Maybe Pi is making up the tiger story to cope with his trauma or maybe the tiger story really happened but the officials kept insisting it couldn’t have happened, so Pi had to invent the second story to satisfy them. The officials are like the people who want a scientific or psychological explanation for everything because they don’t believe that miracles or God exist. Or the people who say all the Bible stories are allegories instead of historical events.

    It takes faith to believe that the stories in the Bible really happened because they are so odd and outside of anything we’ve ever experienced. We cannot definitely prove or disprove God’s existence. Our personal experiences with God won’t change people’s minds because they will think it’s all in our head. So the film is either promoting faith, agnosticism, or atheism, depending on your perspective.

    I must clarify that I am not actually a fundamentalist, but I’m just talking like one for the sake of this argument. 🙂

  • Rohit Kanji

    Pi is behaving per his belief system – that REAL truth cannot be known sometimes and “so it is with faith, and God.” As the book reads, there is genuine uncertainty in Pi’s mind as to what actually happened. He is able to reduce it down to one of two possibilities: One of them is a fantastic and positive story, the other is a gruesome and mundane story. Not knowing which is the true account simply leaves one to choose one. Same is with God. One can accept a fantastic and positive ontology of God or a scientific realistic account of who we are. Thus far, this is the good part of the story.

    Your issue seems to be with not accepting Jesus as the true God and siding with the gruesome version of the story as the true story. If so, you are missing the point of the book and the movie. For a non-believer, story of Jesus is a fantastic and positive story not a gruesome crucifixion of a nice normal human being.

  • wyocommie

    Another problem with this story is simply the characterization between the two versions. The version that requires “faith” is the more beautiful version. The version that is more realistic is very ugly. This was a CHOICE the author made to represent faith verses reality in this way. The fact is that reality is NOT always ugly. And much about faith often is VERY ugly. In this movie the “more beautiful” of the two stories (the one that requires “faith”) is only TRULY unrealistic when you consider the stop to the carnivorous island. Everything else–the animals, taming the tiger, surviving at seas, learning to fish, etc–is believable in a way that does NOT require miracles or faith. So, for the author of this story to say that your only options are a “beautiful” story which requires faith and an ugly story which does not is not an accurate representation of the two sides. He could have just as easily told the same story of taming the tiger and surviving together at sea for 227 days without the stupid island part, and it would have been believable without requiring “faith.” The author is trying to present the argument as what is “real” or based on fact is always ugly and what requires faith is always the more beautiful option. This just simply is not true, and in my opinion it’s highly offensive to the intellect of the viewer/reader. Not to mention the fact that, by the author’s terms, one could do almost ANYTHING vile or disgusting and then make up a “beautiful” story about it and then somehow argue that the “beautiful” story somehow proves that God exists. Garbage.