No Life of Pie

Film Review and commentary by Jim Robertson


Spoiler Alert:

If you haven’t seen the movie, Life of Pi, and you plan to, don’t read this post yet. In discussing what I feel is the story’s theme I will end up revealing some of its major plot points, and I don’t want to spoil the experience just to make a point about ethical veganism…

Still here? Ok, assuming you’ve seen the film (or read the book on which it’s based), you’ll recall that there are essentially three parts to the story, ending with what many critics felt was a disappointing and even unnecessary “alternate” account of events to explain how Pi survived such a long ordeal at sea. Personally, I didn’t find the ending a disappointment, perhaps because I may have been one of the few people who got the message the movie was trying to make. After reading dozens of reviews fawning over the special effects (the computer generated middle act was indeed amazing) and decrying the ending, I found only one review that saw it the way I did: the “alternate” story (told by Pi to a pair of Japanese Ministry of Transport officials) was really what happened.

Now, you might be thinking, why does it matter; why ruin a fun thing (especially when it looked so astounding through 3-D glasses, so I hear)? To answer that, I’m going to try to make a long story short and hit its key points (many of which were completely missed by most mainstream film critics, and movie-goers).

The film starts off with an introductory act in which we learn about the early life of the main character, Pi, through a series of flashbacks as told to a visiting writer who wants to write his biography. We are told that Pi spent his childhood trying many of the world’s religions on for size, hoping to get to know God (his atheist father tells him, “You only need to convert to three more religions, Pi, and you’ll spend your life on holiday.”) At one point he jokes that as a Catholic Hindu, “We get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods, instead of just one.”

Of note is the fact that Pi is an ethical vegetarian. He’s also fascinated by a tiger (named Richard Parker, after its captor) stuck in a zoo owned by his father. When Pi is caught trying to befriend the captive tiger, his father decides to teach him a lesson by making him watch Richard Parker kill a goat, thus instilling a morbid fear of tigers in the curious boy.

The movie’s second act begins after it’s revealed that the zoo must close and the father decides to move the animals, and his family, by ocean-going freighter across the Pacific from India to Canada. En-route, the ship is swallowed up in a massive typhoon and Pi—according to the version of the story he is telling the writer, as we witness it—is the only human to make it onto a life raft. Somehow some of the zoo animals  must have escaped their pens in the ship’s hold, and he finds himself adrift with only an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker—the 500 pound Bengal tiger—for company.

It’s during this portion of the movie that viewers are drawn in by its startling special effects; and it’s also when the main character learns that sometimes the world is no life of pie (my interpretation of the title, as a play on the expression “easy as Pie”).

Driven  by hunger, the hyena soon feeds on the zebra and, as it turns on the orangutan, Richard Parker rushes out from under the lifeboat’s only cover (where he has stayed out of sight until now) and quickly dispatches the hyena. This chain of events is essential to the plot since, skipping ahead to the third act, it mirrors Pi’s “alternate” story: substitute the zebra for a deckhand, the orangutan for his mother, the hyena for the cook and Richard Parker for Pi’s alter-ego.

The symbolism here is that after witnessing the cook kill his mother, Pi summons his tiger-inner-self to kill the cook. And eat him. That’s right, to survive his 227 days at sea, Pi had to turn to cannibalism. Incredibly, though it’s critical to the story’s theme, nearly none of the film reviews I read even mentioned cannibalism, since most critics didn’t realize that the second “alternative” version of Pi’s plight was what must have actually happened. I thought it was pretty obvious when an adult Pi asked the writer, “So which story do you prefer?” to which the writer answered: “The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.”And so it goes with God” was Pi’s reply, meaning that, people believe what they want to believe. In order to cope with the sometimes harsh realities of life and death, in this case, resorting to cannibalism for sustenance—and still retain one’s sanity—people often cling to a fantasy world and make up stories which are easier to stomach.

Life of Pi is more than just a happy little special-effects film about a vegetarian boy and a computer-generated, 3-D tiger surviving on computer-generated, 3-D tuna and flying fish. It’s about the kind of anguish any sane person would go through when forced to eat the flesh of another human being. Perhaps the reason I could more easily relate to the story’s deeper meaning (that so many carnivorous critics failed to see) is because, having eaten only plant-based food for the past decade and a half, I feel that same sick revulsion every time I pass the meat isle in the neighborhood grocery store and imagine people actually consuming the flesh so brazenly displayed there.



Since when is Murder Considered Vegan?

On Monday, was the first out of the gates with the rumor that Adam Lanza was “an organic vegan” who “didn’t want to hurt animals.” By now, with the help of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, that news has probably made it clear around the ever-widening Bible belt, up through the armpit of Idaho to the outback outhouses of Alaska’s North Slope.

But whether or not Lanza eschewed animal flesh, he really couldn’t be considered an ethical vegan since vegans make every effort to avoid harming animals and—although some people are loathe to admit it—humans are animals. Ultimately, Adam Lanza’a  food choices have no more bearing on his decision to go on a killing spree at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary than the fascinating anecdote that he was left-handed (if he was) or that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism (which he did). (But, the point that his mother was a paranoid, survivalist gun-hoarder might actually have some bearing on the case).

The fact is, Lanza simply snapped. For whatever reason, the troubled twenty-year-old went completely off the deep end and acted out for no other explainable reason than insanity itself. None of his victims had anything to do with hurting animals; they were just innocent first graders minding their own business.

What concerns me is that some otherwise normal, caring vegan will snap in the name of the animals and set the entire animal rights movement back for years to come. Just today I received the following comment to one of my blog posts:

“When the subject of Wolf-murder was first mentioned, last year, I said people should put an ultimatum into the public domain to this effect: Kill ONE Wolf and TEN vermin will be randomly executed as retribution. Kill a SECOND Wolf and TWENTY MORE people will die. Kill a THIRD Wolf and FORTY more people will be slotted. For each Wolf murdered, the number of vermin ‘offed’ as retribution will be doubled, and absolutely ANYONE will become an X-Ray, with no concessions to age or gender or anything else. THAT is the way to do business…”

Although this commenter may sound like they’ve already gone postal, I think their point was to inspire others to take aggressive action. She doesn’t even live on this continent and couldn’t possibly act on her vindictive recommendations.

I’m certainly not going to argue that some of the wolf-killers out there don’t deserve a taste of their own medicine; but what if one of the hunters “randomly executed” turned out to be a good person in-the-making, such as the former hunter who recently wrote this?:

“I stopped hunting and trapping long ago. For years, I was ambivalent about speaking out because I accepted the cultural and psychological influences motivating those who grew up considering unnecessary killing a sport.  I’ve come to recognize how superficial, shallow, fleeting and self-destructive is this violent indulgence. I’ve come 180 degrees. For me, it is the senseless open seasons on wolves, bears, and in Wisconsin, even mourning doves.”

Nothing sways public opinion against someone’s cause more than when they decide to go on a shooting spree—especially if their victims are human.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson