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Literature / Life of Pi

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So a boy, a tiger, an orangutan, a hyena, and a zebra all get into a boat...

"The reason death sticks so closely to life isn't biological necessity — it's envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud."
Piscine Molitor Patel

The award-winning Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel is about the life and times of Piscine Molitor Patel, better known as Pi (pronounced "pi", as in, 3.14). An Indian teenager, Pi becomes philosophical at a very young age, becoming an adherent of no less than three religions (Islam, Christianity and Hinduism). His parents find his interest in religion odd but accept it nonetheless. They run a large zoo in Pondicherry, until circumstance forces them to move to Winnipeg, Canada.

The family sells their animals to a variety of zoos, and gain passage to Canada aboard a cargo ship — the Tsimtsum — that happens to be carrying a number of their own animals. For unknown reasons, the Tsimtsum sinks, leaving Pi bobbing along the Pacific in a lifeboat. Alone.

Well, not quite alone.

Pi shares his lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a rat, various insects, a hyena, and a 450-pound adult Bengal tiger. Eventually, it becomes just him and the tiger.

What follows is an odd and touching story, recounting the trials and tribulations that Pi endures during his 227-day ordeal on the lifeboat.

Was adapted into a 3-D Movie, directed by Ang Lee and starring newcomer Suraj Sharma as Pi, released on November 2012. The film proved a critical and commercial success, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Director (Steven Spielberg, director of Lincoln, was expected to get the prize).

This media provides examples of:

  • Absurdism: Evidence is not what convinced Pi of God; it was his refusal to accept a world without God, or as he calls it, "missing the better story", and he knows it. This answer to the question of life's meaning is defined by absurdist Albert Camus as "Philosophical Sucide".[1][2]
  • Accidental Misnaming: Pi is instantly christened "Pissing Patel" by the other children at his school. The teachers try harder, but even they slip into calling him "Pissing" when they're not concentrating. He invents the nickname "Pi" for himself to avoid this.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Pi and his family thought it was hilarious that Thirsty the Tiger had his name mixed up with Richard Parker, the hunter who caught him. They decide the tiger is thus Richard Parker.
  • Actor Allusion: Tabu played Irrfan Khan's wife in The Namesake as well.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: In the film, the Japanese sent to question Pi after he survives are much more straightforward about not caring about his first tale.
  • Adaptational Modesty: As the cover shown above indicates, Pi ends up naked at some point during his journey in the book, after the wind and sea begins to wear down on his clothes until there's nothing left of them. Naturally, the film had to let him keep his pants on, thought he still ends up losing his shirt.
  • The Aloner: Pi, before he discovers the animals/people.
  • Analogy Backfire: When Santosh announces that they are leaving India.
    Santosh: We will sail like Columbus.
    Pi: But Columbus was sailing for India!
  • And a Diet Coke: Exaggerated, but only in a dream sequence. Pi puts together a perfect meal on a gargantuan scale, with at least a dozen delicious Indian dishes and heaping platefuls of everything, rivers of ghee and mountains of rice, all washed down with gallons of crystal-clear, perfectly cold water, and a small cup of black coffee.
  • Anvilicious: In-Universe: Santosh Patel's lesson to Pi and Ravi about how dangerous animals are.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Santosh Patel's lesson on the savagery of animals goes through a thorough list — and ends with guinea pigs. Which are genuinely domesticated. Mind you, Pi does note that picking up a wild guinea pig would be like "grabbing a knife by the blade".
  • Artistic License – Biology:
    • The CGI African elephant in opening scene is obviously a tweaked model of Asian elephant, with distinctly shaped back and smoother, pink colored skin.
    • One would expect someone as familiar with animals as Pi to know that hyenas are not dogs. His observation could be interpreted as a base description of a hyena's behavior compared to a big cat, however.
    • The businessmen incorrectly call meerkats rodents (very likely In-Universe, though).
    • The hybrid vampire squid-anglerfish (because it is a hallucination).
    • Part of the reason why the Japanese insurance investigators don't believe Pi's story is they find the meerkat island so biologically improbable.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: The screen shape is normally 1.85:1. But the flying fish scene is in Cinemascope and the shot recreating the book cover is in Academy Ratio.
  • Audience Surrogate: The writer, being The Watson at times while also throwing in an expositional "Let Me Get This Straight...".
  • Badass Bookworm: Pi is intelligent, well-read and quite capable of surviving with a tiger as a roommate.
  • Badass on Paper: The author mentions that Pi is a legend among sailors. Pi jokes that he doesn't even know how to sail.
  • Big Brother Instinct: In the film, it's inverted; Pi immediately starts calling for Ravi and his parents when the boat starts sinking. He desperately tries to swim down to them to get them out but has to retreat.
  • Bioluminescence Is Cool: Exaggerated in the movie. Apparently every body of water glows piercing blue at night. Justified as bioluminescent plankton and pelagic worms really are very common on the tropical Pacific.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The carnivorous island.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Pi survived the voyage, but lost everything except his last shred of humanity. Even his partner, Richard Parker, disappeared into the Mexican jungle without any meaningful closure. With that said, Pi grows up to become a well-adjusted happy adult, with a family and a fulfilling life. And that's assuming Richard Parker was ever on the boat with him in the first place. It's likely that he did exist, but drowned along with most of the other passengers on the Tsimtsum.
  • A Boy and His X: A Boy And His Tiger. Not like that.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: In the book, Pi mentions that a sight scared him to the point where he "relieved himself in his pants".
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Pi, after being rescued, at least with Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba.
  • Crapsaccharine World: See Garden of Evil.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Pi initially assumes that Orange Juice the orangutan will be helpless against the hyena, but she surprises him by a snarling display and by whacking the hyena on the head. Then it's the hyena's turn...
  • Dead Guy Junior: It's easy to miss, but Pi's son's name at the end of the movie is Ravi.
  • Death by Pragmatism: While the ship was sinking, Pi was thrown into a lifeboat by the sailors in hopes that they would be able to save themselves, since the hyena was in the boat, and they threw him in to distract it.
  • Determinator: Pi himself. He describes himself as one of those people who never, ever gives up his will to life, and wonders if this is actually a kind of stupidity. But at any rate, keeping up his plan to tame an adult tiger and keep the two of them fed, despite weather, hunger, dehydration, and despair, for 227 days, proves what the narrator says.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The framing story of the author meeting Pi and being told his story is set up this way.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: When Pi, delirious and losing hope, stares into the ocean, with his visions very much forming one of these.
  • Drowning Pit: Pi tries to dive back down to the cabins of the sinking ship filling with water. He doesn't get far.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: By the time we see Pi as a grown adult, he's now Happily Married, loves his children, and cooks any dish with the skill to make all other cooks jealous.
  • Eldritch Location: The island. Lush paradise by day, carnivorous Garden of Evil by night.
  • Eldritch Ocean Abyss: The dream sequence where the camera goes ever deeper in the ocean features a sperm whale attacked by a giant squid then exploding into zoo animals, a hideous anglerfish/squid hybrid, and the sunken cargo.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Piscine Molitor Patel. The Piscine Molitor is a famous Parisian swimming pool. He's not particularly embarrassed about that, though, it's just that piscine happens to sound a lot like "pissing," and naturally other kids are going to take advantage of that.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Pi's hair grows longer and gets more shaggy as time passes.
  • Fiendish Fish: During Pi's dream sequence, he imagines a hybrid of an anglerfish and a squid rising from the depths.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: A hunter intended on naming the tiger cub he had just captured as "Thirsty". A mix-up in a newspaper article announcing the capture ended up giving the largest cat on Earth an equally unthreatening name, that of the hunter (Richard Parker). Pi admits that he thought it was funny as a child.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Pi's the one relating the story to the author, so we know that despite it all, he will survive.
  • Foreshadowing: Pi sees Richard Parker in the water instead of his own reflection, and later on confirms that in the alternate story he told the Japanese investigators, the tiger was supposed to be him.
    • In the film, when the meerkats on the island are first shown, you can see fish skeletons all over the place. In short order, it's revealed that the island itself is carnivorous and the pools of freshwater that sustained Pi in the day turn into giant stomachs digesting any fish that come too close to the island.
    • Early in the book Pi breaks into an unexplained fit of laughter over the concept of finding some unknown thing in a Mexican jungle. At the very end the Japanese investigators express skepticism that a tiger could hide in the Mexican jungle undetected; obviously this still amuses Pi years later.
  • For the Evulz: When the tiger arrives on the island with meerkats, it kills way more of them than it needs to eat, simply because it's been so long since it killed anything.
  • Frame Break: In the movie, when a school of fish is swimming close to Pi's boat, the frame narrows to Cinemascope and has fish jump out of the frame and into the letterbox.
  • Framing Device: Pi is telling his story within the story.
  • French Jerk: In the film, the cook, who obstinately refuses to acquiesce to the Pi's mother's request for a vegetarian meal. And may have killed and eaten Pi's mother.
  • Friendly Enemy: Pi initially fears the sharks that keep surrounding his boat, but eventually regards them as grumpy old neighbors who keep visiting but don't want to admit they like him.
  • Garden of Evil: Pi lands on an "island" floating in the Pacific, consisting of algae and trees in symbiosis which turn out to be carnivorous. The scene where he peels away layers of leaves from what he thinks is a fruit and finds a human tooth in the middle is particularly notable.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Pi's sanity deteriorates due to being alone with only a tiger for company. He recovers, but things get a bit strange for a while.
  • Heroic BSoD: Pi shows this at various points, most notably after Orange Juice has been killed by the hyena.
  • Heroic Bystander: In Mexico, several villagers spot a dirtied and disheveled body collapsed on the beach. They quickly run to drag him away from the surf and carry him to safety as he revives and starts sobbing from mourning Richard Parker's departure.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Pi and Richard Parker recover and live happily for a time on the floating island, until Pi discovers that it's a Garden of Evil.
    • There's also one earlier in the story, when Pi notices a freighter, but fails to get its attention despite shooting several flares into the sky.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played with in full force if you believe Pi's alternate story replacing the animals with humans. On the other hand, in either story villagers find Pi and rescue him when he washes up on their shore, feeding him and getting him to a hospital.
  • If You Can Read This: According to the pages of the Japanese report in the film, a major storm was not reported in the area of the ship when it sank. Additionally, the report says the ship sank stern first but the movie portrays it bow first. It can be used to indicate the Unreliable Narrator.note  The original book doesn't use this.
  • Insane Troll Logic: When first introduced to the Christian redemption narrative, this is what Pi thinks of the notion that the son of God should die for humans' misdeeds; he compares it to his father feeding him to the lions to make up for their hypothetical consumption of other animals in their zoo.
  • Interfaith Smoothie: Pi is a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim, and takes advice from clergy in all three faiths.
  • It Gets Easier: Pi is introduced as devoutly religious, intelligent and a vegetarian. But when he has to survive, he abandons all morals. Killing becomes easier, and soon he is doing things like sucking fluid from fish eyeballs and eating feces and human flesh.
  • Jump Scare:
    • In the film, Richard Parker kills the hyena.
    • The tiger charges Pi from a dead angle.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Initially, because they tease him and make fun of his name. But when he invents his new nickname, his new classmates are very supportive of it, and never make any fun of him at all.
  • Lighter and Softer: Downplayed in the movie. It is quite a bit less graphic than the book, but is just as emotional nonetheless.
  • Lost at Sea: For most of the story.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: We never learn which of the two stories is the correct one. In fact, the whole point of Life of Pi is to let the audience decide what they want to believe.
  • Meaningful Rename: Piscine Molitor Patel decides to becomes Pi.
  • Mind Screw: Most of the book. But especially when Pi tells his story again, only this time replacing the animals with humans, and somehow it seems more gruesome than before.
  • Misplaced Wildlife:
    • Discussed. According to Pi, animals are so good at keeping out of the way of humans that there are thousands living in cities that you'd never expect.
    Pi: If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it, you would be amazed at the animals that would fall out. It would pour out more than cats and dogs, I tell you. Boa constrictors, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, piranhas, ostriches, wolves, lynx, wallabies, manatees, porcupines, orang-utans, wild boar— that's the sort of rainfall you could expect to find.
    • The meerkats living on a Pacific Island.
    • And at the end, Richard Parker ends up disappearing into the Mexican jungle. One reason people don't believe his story is that there have been no reports of a tiger in Mexico. Pi thinks it's hilarious that people expect to be able to chance upon a tiger in a jungle.
  • Mood Whiplash: Deliberately done: Part One of the book is about Pi's life in India, interspersed with brief chapters of the author's present-day observations. The last chapter of Part One concludes with an impossibly sweet scene of the author meeting Pi's daughter, who happily embraces her father as the author notes "This story has a happy ending." It's a necessary bright spot for the reader's benefit, to prepare them for the first sentence of Part Two:
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The writer, being sent to Patel for getting new ideas for his work. He ends up writing down Pi's story.
  • Mouthful of Pi: The young Pi cements his nickname by showing how many digits of pi he can recite.
  • The Nondescript: Mr. Kumar (the religious one).
  • No Party Like a Donner Party:
    • Pi comes across a French man who eventually tries to kill and eat him. After he's killed by Richard Parker, Pi finds himself eating a bit of him unconsciously.
    • In the alternate "the animals were people" story, the cook advocates eating the sailor out of practicality, but seems to enjoy eating humans for its own sake. And when he's killed, Pi eats out his liver and heart.
  • Now It's My Turn: Orange Juice's blow to the hyena was impressive, but it does no good.
  • Ocean Madness: Being stuck on a tiny lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for 227 days with only a tiger for company takes a serious toll on Pi's mental state.
  • Oh, Crap!: Pi initially tries as hard as he can to save his friend Richard Parker from drowning and get him on his lifeboat. Just as he succeeds, he realizes the fatal truth: Richard Parker is also A TIGER.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: The novel has a few chapters with only one or two sentences in them. In fact, part two of the book has all of its chapters in an odd order so each chapter can focus on a different object or event in the story.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted by the two Mr. Satish Kumars: one the atheist biology teacher at Pi's school, the other a baker and the first Muslim Pi meets. Regrettably, both were Adapted Out of the movie.
  • Opposed Mentors: In the novel, the title character has two mentors, both named Mr. Kumar: the first is an uneducated but devout Muslim shopkeeper while the other is Pi's intelligent, atheistic science teacher. Despite their antithetical worldviews they actually get along well the one time they happen to meet each other, and Pi, whose two main interests are religion and animals, doesn't seem to feel conflicted between them.
    On observing a zebra...
    Mr. Kumar: Equus burchelli boehmi.
    Mr. Kumar: Allahu ackbar.
    Pi: It's very pretty.
  • Overly Long Gag: As Mr. Patel's lecture demonstrates, it's not just tigers that can kill you, but lions, leopards, Himalayan bears, sloth bears, hippos, hyenas, orangutans, ostriches, deer, camels, swans, elephants...
  • Panthera Awesome: In case you didn't notice, a tiger rides with Pi.
  • Pet the Dog: In the film, the Jerkass Cook is last seen urging his fellow sailors to join him in the lifeboat, before a zebra jumps in and knocks him off the boat. He could have easily left the sailors to their fates, but refuses to lower the boat whilst the other men were onboard.
  • Postmodernism: It doesn't get more postmodern than asking your interviewers which reality they want to believe in.
  • Poverty Food: A grumpy cook (played by Gérard Depardieu) in a sleazy galley serves his gravy-rich stodge to the ship's lower deck passengers.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Ang Lee commented that while they tried to remain as faithful to the book as possible, some scenes simply could not be adapted perfectly. He explained that facing a situation where the crew spent the better part of a whole day shooting the same scene, the lead actor was showing signs of distress due to filming in cold weather for hours and everyone's nerves were fraying, he chose to be pragmatic about it rather than sticking to perfectionism.
  • Prolonged Prologue: The novel as well as the film take an extended introduction before getting to the point where the blurb begins.
  • The Reveal: Richard Parker is a Bengal tiger. Of course, this fact is usually presented upfront in descriptions of the story, and in the movie, but it's worth noting that every mention of Richard Parker throughout Part One is phrased ambiguously enough that he could be assumed to be human. Only at the beginning of Part Two is his nature disclosed.
  • Robinsonade: Mostly on a boat instead of an island.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • Richard Parker is the name of several real life and fictional people who were shipwrecked and cannibalized.
    • Tsimtsum, the ship that sinks, is also a religious term that means "a void created by God" and "to find oneself." Tsimtsum is from Lurianic Kabbalah, which was founded by Isaac Luria, whose name is on the first page of Pi's story (Pi wrote his thesis on religious studies about him.)
    • Apparently, the color orange represents security. Orange Juice, Richard Parker, and the life vests were all this color.
    • Pi thinks up six plans to kill Richard Parker. The seventh plan, after their decision for friendship, is to keep him alive.
    • As it turns out, the tiger Richard Parker may just be Pi's symbol for himself, or rather, the amoral and animalistic side of himself that enabled him to survive.
    • "Pissing" Patel finds refuge in the name "Pi." He works for refuge in his odyssey — which lasts 227 days. Pi is approximately 22/7.
  • Sacred Hospitality: The villagers that found Pi after he landed on the beach quickly get him out of the sun and to the safety of their town, where he gets his first proper meal in a year and a ride to a nearby hospital. They later make arrangements with the Canadian and Mexican governments to provide him a foster family and stability.
  • Scenery Porn:
    • The descriptions of the Pondicherry Zoo.
    • The film adaptation has this in spades, with many critics praising Ang Lee's masterful directing and subtle use of 3D.
  • The Series Has Left Reality: The book is realistic for the most part, but during the last part, Pi discovers an "island" covered in meerkats, floating in the middle of the Pacific. Then he discovers that the island is one gigantic carnivorous plant. He finds a human tooth from a former victim in its leaves. This is basically Handwaved as "well, who's to say something like this can't exist in the real world?"
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: When the hyena attacks the zebra, the film cuts to a shot of the boat from a distance in the sunset, where we see the silhouette of the struggling zebra and Pi and Orange Juice screaming at the sight.
  • Shout-Out: To The Odyssey; Pi realizes that the paradisical island that he comes across is really carnivorous and eating any people and animals that end up there when he finds a tooth inside a lotus flower. It's a literal Lotus-Eater Machine.
    • Edgar Allan Poe's novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, tells the story of four men lost at sea, who resort to eating their own cabin boy in order to survive. The cabin boy's name? Richard Parker.
    • Possibly an unintentional example: "I stabbed him repeatedly, his blood soothed my chapped hands. His heart was a struggle - all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than a turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh."
  • Sinking Ship Scenario: The cargo ship sinks in a heavy storm at night with a few people desperately trying to get into the lifeboats.
  • Sole Survivor:
    • Well, Pi is the sole human survivor of the sinking of the Tsimtsum. By his account, at least. Though even in his first story there's nothing to prove that the Frenchman wasn't the ship's cook.
    • The tiger too is the only animal survivor, after the remaining ones have been killed.
  • Symbolic Serene Submersion: The sinking scene includes a shot where Piscine, while underwater, sees the ship he was on sinking in front of him, and hangs motionless in the water for several seconds, silhouetted by its lights, temporarily stunned by the enormity of what has happened.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: In the film, Pi acquires this after the orangutan is killed.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Pi is played by four different actors; Suraj Sharma gets most of the screen time as the teenage Pi, followed by Irrfan Khan as adult Pi. Ayush Tandon plays Pi at age 11-12 and Gautam Belur plays Pi at age 5.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Justified with the meerkats on the floating island, who evolved for years without having to respond to any threats other than the algae. Thus, they respond to the visitors passively, even as the tiger is mauling them one by one.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Everyone knows that Pi spends nearly a year with a wild Bengal tiger on a lifeboat thanks to the trailer and the cover art. In both the book and the movie, that reveal actually comes much later where Pi calls out to Richard Parker to make it to the boat, and in the movie where Pi as a boy tried to feed him.
  • The Unreveal: It is never discovered why the Tsimtsum sinks. When Pi is interrogated at it by investigators, none of the circumstances seem to suggest what went wrong with it. As they put it: "Everything was normal. And then normal sank."
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • It's not made clear whether or not Pi actually spent all his time with the aforementioned animals, or whether or not they're stand-ins for people — the cook, a sailor, his mother, himself. Plus since he's constantly suffering from starvation and dehydration, some of Pi's more fantastic experiences may have been embellished, such as the carnivorous island. In the film, the ending is presented initially as less ambiguous, but Freeze-Frame Bonus on the report contradicts some of Pi's story, like a storm sinking the ship.
    • Yann Martel writes this book as if it was based on true events, whereas it is actually a complete work of fiction.
  • Villainous BSoD: The hyena doesn't whimper or beg for mercy when the tiger kills it. This carries over in the alternate story, where Pi (the tiger) kills the cook (hyena), who fights back but knows he deserves his death.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: In the book, Pi's clothes more or less rot off of his body, forcing him to spend a large portion of his journey naked. In the movie, he still goes shirtless, but gets to keep his pants, for obvious reasons.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Or in this case, what happened to the rat. The rat appears as a rat in both stories, yet unlike most everything else who eats it changes between stories. This more than likely to drive home one is an imperfect metaphor to the other one's truth.
  • Why Isn't It Attacking?: The hyena takes a very long time before it gets around to attacking the zebra, Orange Juice, or Pi. Pi later sees why it had waited so long, because the tiger was still on the boat.
  • You Monster!: Pi's mother calls the cook this many times in the alternate telling of the story.

Alternative Title(s): Life Of Pi