This weekend I finally watched Life of Pi. The movie, directed by Ang Lee and inspired by the 2001 novel by Yann Martel, tells the story of an Indian boy who survives 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger that can be interpreted as either actual or allegorical (and on this question, I suspect, the film’s meaning really turns). The cinematography of the film is beautiful, almost dream-like in places; but what most captured me was the film’s exploration of the nature, aesthetics and utility of faith in God in a Darwininan universe that so often operates according to the “survival of the fittest.”
At stake here is the question of whether God exists, the answer to which ultimately depends on which story told by the narrator is “preferable” (rather than necessarily plausible). And we, film goers and listeners, have an option. We can choose which story we prefer.
For most of the film, we are led to believe that the vicious Bengal tiger the boy has been taught to fear really is an actual Bengal tiger. A second possible explanation for the tiger emerges, however, towards the end of the film: that the tiger is a metaphor for the boy himself, who must learn to survive in a ruthless world where shipwrecks happen and where people must do sometimes drastic, appalling things in order to survive. (In this sense, the tiger could also be a metaphor for human nature.) The implications of this second possible explanation would be very dark. For example, in a scene that shows the tiger attacking and devouring the three other zoo animals initially on the lifeboat, we would have to believe that the animals, like the tiger, are people- and, in turn, when they die, a cannibalistic meal for a desperate, starving boy bent on self-preservation.
In other words, we can choose to believe either a more wondrous, captivating tale about a boy and his tiger and their surreally miraculous escape together, or, a far darker and unpalatable (pun intended), potentially more “realistic” story about a boy who, once vegetarian, now manages to survive the greater part of a whole year stranded in the Pacific, this by (in discovering his own inner tiger) eating his three human companions after they die.
“Which story do you prefer?,” the narrator asks his main listener in the film, an author hoping to write up this remarkable story that he has been told at the outset will make him believe in God.
The question is also for us, of course. The listeners in the film, both this writer and the two investigators who visit the boy after the ordeal in order to get the story straight, choose the first more magical story, a choice that earns them the following response from the narrator: “And so it goes with God.”
My question is: what goes with God? A better, more magical story? A story that may or may not have actually happened but is more wondrous and beautiful? A story that if not actually, autobiographically true helps a young boy survive the trauma of losing his family in a shipwreck and eating the only other survivors in order to stay alive? Is belief in God commendable insofar as it helps us survive the vicissitudes of a cruel world and makes for better, more magical stories? And, if the implied answer here is “yes,” there still remains some question as to the nature of the truth claims in God’s stories.
But did any of you see the movie? What did you make of it? Was the Bengal tiger real or allegorical, do you think? Is the film making a point or leaving us to ask questions about the nature of religious truth claims and the utility and aesthetics of believing in God?