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New Ang Lee Film Life of Pi, Based on Yann Martel's Book: Who Is Richard Parker?

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My Rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, tells great stories, some factual, some allegorical, some simply to get a laugh. On this Jewish New Year, Rosh Hosanna, Rabbi Reuben started his sermon with a joke: A man walks into a movie theater and sits behind another man with a dog. Throughout the movie, the dog seems to be paying close attention to the events on the screen and seems to be very upset. The dog growls and howls during dialog, and finally buries his head under his paws at the film's conclusion. "Excuse me," says the man to the man with the dog, "I couldn't help but notice that your dog seemed to understand everything that was happening on the screen and to dislike it intensely." "Yes" said the man with the dog, "I was surprised too because he really loved the book."

I just reread Life of Pi by Yann Martel, in anticipation of the release of the film version directed by Ang Lee. Now I love Ang Lee (especially Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain) and I love the book Life of Pi. The novel seeks to get at the heart of what makes us human through the explorations of a 16-year-old boy, first as he explores religions, and then as he survives 227 days on the open sea in a lifeboat. I won't reveal the big surprises here, and recommend that you read the book yourself before you see the movie.

I don't expect Lee to be faithful to the printed word of the novel, but hope that the film will stand on its own as a work of art equally as powerful as the novel. Attempts to treat the novel as sacred text to be followed word for word by the filmmakers may inhibit their artistry and leave them ill equipped to deal with the different challenges and opportunities of a visual medium. As the character Pi says about interpreting the great books of faith as guides for a spiritual life, "...We should not cling! A plague against fundamentalists and literalists! "

Many of my favorite books have been adapted for film with varying levels of fidelity to their source material and varying levels of success as films. Some of my favorite adaptations are The Remains of the Day (expanding the view from a book told only through only the eyes of the butler), and more recently Where the Wild Things Are (based on a few written lines in a picture book!) and We Need to Talk about Kevin (based on a novel written as a series of letters!) Life of Pi has a number of unique challenges to becoming a visual narrative, and frankly, I can't wait to see Mr. Lee's direction.

Rereading Life of Pi again after the 11 years since it was published, I was impressed again at the masterful storytelling, and the boldness of the proposal made at the beginning of the book, "I have a story that will make you believe in God." Does the story live up to that challenge? Interestingly, the reviews on the cover don't seem to address directly the question proposed by the book itself. For example, the Los Angeles Times review says, "A story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction." And the New York Times Book Review, "Life of Pi could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life." What about the claim made in this very book that it proves the existence of God?

That brings me to another question: Who is Richard Parker? We hear the name several times before we are introduced to Richard Parker in stunning fashion as he climbs, wet and terrified, onto the lifeboat with Pi after the sinking of the ship containing Pi's family and many of the animals from their former zoo. Richard Parker is a 450 pound Bengal Tiger and the only character to survive and share the lifeboat with Pi continuously until he finally hits land at the end of the book to tell the story we read. The book gives a funny anecdote to explain Richard Parker's name. Due to a clerical error on paperwork that came with the tiger as a cub to the zoo, the name of the hunter who had tranquilized the cub was switched with the name given to the cub ("Thirsty") and Pi's father found the mistake so amusing that the name Richard Parker stuck to the cub.

But authors often invest much meaning in the names of characters, and Richard Parker's name is not as innocent as the preceding anecdote implies. The name Richard Parker appears in several old seafaring accounts of sailors lost at sea who are subsequently eaten by fellow survivors. Perhaps the name Richard Parker, associated with the eating of human flesh, is suitable for a Bengal Tiger whose natural instinct it would be to eat men like Pi. Pi is sharing a life boat with a man-eating tiger and much of the story's tension stems from this precarious relationship. Will Pi end up as a meal? But on a deeper level, I believe Richard Parker is a manifestation of the boy Pi. Richard Parker symbolizes the animal instinct in all of us -- that part of us that might do anything to survive in extreme conditions when the choice is kill or be killed, eat or be eaten (including one's fellow man.) Pi benefits from his animal instincts that teach him, a lifelong vegetarian, to eat and drink whatever he must to survive. But he also must train his Richard Parker, use his mind to exert control over his animal instincts, or he would not survive as a human. When Pi comes back to civilization, Richard Parker disappears into the jungle. What is left of the boy who once shared the lifeboat with the tiger? Does he still have his humanity? Did that survive the horrible ordeal, the test set forth by the novel's events? Will Pi be able to communicate with humans again and reenter society?

We know at the beginning of the book that Pi survives to tell the story and that he has a beautiful wife and children. The novel even tells us up front "This story has a happy ending." How did a boy survive a record time at sea with little but his own resources? I think Pi and the author give us two answers. Pi thanks Richard Parker, his animal instinct, for keeping him alive. But even more importantly, he thanks God. Not a God on a throne in heaven that speaks in literal commandments or through the mouths of religious leaders who often reject the faith of all other religious leaders. The God that Pi believes in and the God that the book seeks to prove is that which elevates man above all the other animals as far as we know. God is the greatest creation of human intellect or the greatest comprehension of the human intellect, a faith in a force bigger than ourselves and our own survival, bigger even than everything we experience. God is our capacity to tell stories to explain what we don't understand and to tell stories that give richer meaning and insight to the things we do understand. God is how we survive the often cruel and harsh realities of an existence full of death and loss yet maintain the will to live, an intellectual curiosity, and the ability to love.

At the end of the book, when he is challenged about the facts of the story he has told, Pi asks if the interrogators want him to tell a different story, one without animals (perhaps more factual, less allegorical?) He gives them another story of his survival, one that is less imaginative, one without hope, without God, a story that may be true but is less revealing about the inner journey that Pi took to survive with his humanity intact. He leaves his questioners and us readers with the question, "which is the better story?" Since the second version is told in just a few pages, the author has certainly stacked the deck for the story with God in it. But I must agree that this book, and maybe soon the movie (release date November 21, 2012), is a very persuasive argument that God is part of our nature just as Richard Parker is, and we need both to survive.