Mockingbird at the Movies: Reflections on Life of Pi

“When every link is a separation, when we understand our communicating with God to be […]

Will McDavid / 3.6.13

“When every link is a separation, when we understand our communicating with God to be scratches on a wall, the complexity of life does not have to be evaded; we do not cease to wonder and wander, but merely are assured our wondering and wandering are not futile.”

-Matthew Sitman, on Christian Wiman

tierThe Life of Pi struck me at first as a shallow film, with a couple of aphorisms about religion (a house with “room for doubt on every floor”), a movie that excelled in some areas – with four well-deserved Oscars – but something without as much depth as it tries to suggest. While I still don’t think it was necessary the best movie of the year, it’s among the profound reflections on faith I’ve seen on the big screen, offering a plausible account of a kid stranded on a lifeboat and a fantastical one, and the two accounts’ tensions bring to light many of the inner tensions of faith and belief.

Which story do you prefer? For those who have seen Life of Pi (and if not, major spoiler alert), this question reinterprets the entire film. Pi, a now-grown Indian who was stranded at sea during boyhood, has presented a basic story: he’s stranded with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker. The hyena kills the zebra and then the orangutan as Pi helplessly looks on, and then the tiger, who has been hidden below a tarpaulin on the boat, jumps out and kills the hyena. Pi then spends months training the tiger so the two can coexist on the lifeboat, tending to its need for food, and at last watches the tiger vanish into the jungle after they wash up on the Mexican shore, without even looking back on the facedown-in-the-sand Pi.

Now this story doesn’t seem so credible, so Pi translates it into human terms: a cook (the hyena) killed a weakened sailor and his mother (zebra and orangutan), and then Pi killed him. Simple enough, but where’s the tiger? It’s here we learn the tiger is symbolically linked to God, a stand-in of sorts. As Pi tells the story to a seemingly agnostic French author, Pi asks him which story he prefers, and the author answers, “The one with the tiger.” And so it goes with God.

There’s some obvious apologetics material here – that narrative is more convincing than argumentation, that religion’s emotional resonances are ultimately more fundamental than its propositions, etc – but the book/movie isn’t really about this subject. And while the ‘two stories’ ending can seem like an abrupt bait-and-switch, on a second watch the movie’s action is constantly weaving the human and animal/divine threads in and out of each other, and the elastic space between the two stories is the thematic core of the film. They are separate accounts and seem to offer two distinct versions for understanding Pi’s tale, but again, every separation is a link, and every link a separation.

Despite the movie’s occasional lapses into theological triteness, it struck me as one of the most profound reflections on faith I’ve seen in a while. The scenario is an existentialist’s dream: a boy is washed up alone and adrift on a life raft, struggling for sanity and survival. The human story functions along the lines of agnosticism, a Lord of the Flies scenario in which brute force and conniving take over. In this scenario, the boy’s anchor, his point of orientation, is his own will to survival: his anger and vengeance lead him to kill the cook, and then he really is alone and adrift in the sense of Absurdism. In the animal story, the boy find a locus of meaning in the tiger Richard Parker, without whom, he claims, he could have never survived. There’s a certain irony to the distinction between stories: in the human one, the characters tend to revert to animal instincts, while in the animal story, a more human part of boy and tiger start to develop in a relationship of codependence (in the positive sense).


Codependence, or mutualism rests on the theological/psychological idea of an Other, with the suggestion that meaning can only come from outside ourselves. For Martel’s/Lee’s purposes, we can examine relationship (boy-tiger) through the lens of controlled, or chosen, unpredictability. That is, our actions shape another person, but relationship’s infinitude comes from the fact that we can never grasp the Other, never reduce another person (or animal) to a matrix of stimulus and response. That is, what gives our relationship to another its depth of meaning is our inability to control, to predict. And yet we do exercise influence, mutual influence, and so a relationship is a mutual exercise in willingly placing oneself under the influence of, and subject to the unpredictability of, another person.

As Martin Buber’s childhood story of encountering a horse and feeling the immensity of another’s existence (in I and Thou) epitomizes, animals can be the locus of perceiving the Other, something beyond and outside of oneself. Although Pi’s relation to the tiger is not strictly voluntary, the experience of being in relation to something outside himself is Pi’s point of orientation, his grounding. When he says that Richard Parker saved his life, he means that the tiger gave him purpose, meaning, and anchoring – prevented him from going insane, to simplify. He trains the tiger, finds a way to live with him, and the tiger mediates two key ideas.

First, selfishness. Again, the human story is a Hobbesian every-man-for-himself view of primal nature. The animal story is more nuanced: Pi helps keep the tiger alive out of genuine care, but this care is tempered by the fact that the tiger’s physical survival and Pi’s mental stability are codependent. It’s selfishness, but it’s a higher form of selfishness, one approaching religion: we enter into a relation with the Other for reasons of sanity, meaning, purpose, and yet this relation can take on meaning independently of our selfishness – hence Pi’s sadness that Richard Parker didn’t give a farewell gesture before disappearing into the forest.


Second, the tiger mediates unpredictability. Whereas the forces of nature are completely beyond Pi’s control, his training of and feeding of the tiger provide a modicum of controlled unpredictability. In this one thing, at least, Pi can exercise control, can be “master of his domain”, as Seinfeld would put it. But this mastery over the tiger is tempered by unpredictability; thus it’s not so much a Hobbesian domination as it is a sense of meaning and agency amidst the arbitrary, capricious sea.

So selfishness can be defined as the need to control unpredictability. Mastering this unpredictability, with a little luck, is all there is in the human story, and mastery is a brute exercise of human power. But relating to unpredictability, subjecting oneself to it while still retaining agency in the relation, is a spiritual endeavor because it recognizes something beyond oneself that can still provide one with happiness (entering into a relation with something that can provide on with an eternal happiness was, for example, Kierkegaard’s summary of the Christian endeavor in his Postscript). So the animal story is a relation of unpredictability that provides meaning, orientation, and even salvation (in the sense of survival) for Pi.


But the tempered selfishness of the animal story pushes it towards the realm of the human story, which is self-interest, power, and brute self-reliance. If there’s no tiger, and all the humans besides Pi die within the first few weeks, then it’s mastery of his surroundings that allows him to survive. And yet, if the real story is the human one, why make up the animal one – in other words, why would that be the first story he tells upon waking up in the hospital? Here we enter into the realm of projection, of psychological fantasy suggested by the glowing seascape at night, the CGIed tiger and waves. In his loneliness, the boy must project a tiger to give a sense of the threat, the mutual care, the relationship, the orientation, and the sense of meaning and infinitude we earlier identified with the spiritual. The fantasies are critical for meaning and survival – he must project an Other because a life circumscribed only by the self is meaningless, survival for its own sake which is actually an interior languishing, or wasting away in the words of St. Paul.

And so the two stories – fantastical human and dependent animal/divine, lean against each other like the walls of a hut. Our interior need for meaning beyond the self projects into fantasies about the divine, but the need for such fantasies reflects a sense of the divine, an orientation toward God. And the animal story responds to this need with a real Other, one that does contract to give us happiness and salvation, one whose presence we are stuck with within the midst of adrift individuality and will to survive, one with whom we enter a relation for selfish reasons, but this relation overflows a fullness that takes the self captive and subsumes it under a broader narrative.

The stories of bare humanness and real Otherness push and pull against each other in a way that penetrates to the psychological heart of faith and our experience of God in the world. In tracing and giving shape to this experience, Life of Pi does an extraordinary job.

In the final scenes, Pi asks the French author which one he prefers, and when the author chooses the animal one, Pi responds, “and so it is with God.” The fact we prefer an objective divinity and real meaning beyond ourselves doesn’t mean that faith is a fantasy, but perhaps that faith sounds the deepest parts of the solitary individual life – and especially the solitary life which is helpless and adrift. Preference for the more fantastical, religious story doesn’t indicate falsehood so much it suggests that there is an answer to our desires, our needs, our predicament. To castaways alone on an island, faith is ‘news from over the sea’, as Walker Percy put it, and our psychological relationship to that need is always part fantasy, part desire, and part the reality of a world beyond ourselves that breaks in during our most helpless and subjective moments.