The trailer for Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's famous book The Life of Pi has been making waves because of its beauty. But the book deals more closely with religion, God, humanity, and the nature of storytelling than the compelling hijinks of surviving 277 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. If previews can be believed, fans of the book will be disappointed.
My copy of Life of Pi has collected dust for several years, so I dutifully re-read it in anticipation of the film. I was surprised at how deeply — and naturally — the book deals with a holistic faith life. Yann Martel has claimed that, until he wrote this book as a sort of Hail Mary pass for his writing career, he called himself a secular agnostic, or someone who is not particularly interested in the existence of God but who can generally see both sides of the argument for God's existence. After researching the book using the holy texts of various religions he had a breakthrough in which he understood that the world's religions were best in unison, not in division.
As Pi Patel says in Chapter 25, "To me, religion is about our dignity, not our depravity."
"There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless .... These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside."
This point is key to the future of religious tolerance. Interfaith dialogue — all dialogue — is rooted in the idea that we have more in common than separates us. Life of Pi reminds us that reality is much bigger than our ability to describe it, and that we should expect to be surprised. Pi Patel sees no problem in using every available brush to paint God, so he engages in Hindu, Muslim, and Christian rituals while safe in India, and calls to God in various languages while suffering in the Pacific. Similarly, Martel comfortably employs the language of several religious philosophies.
The lasting value of The Life of Pi is in showing us how to comfortably inhabit larger and larger habitats. The first third of the book explains the finer points of zoo-keeping, with particular attention to the art of zoo enclosures. Then Pi comfortably inhabits different religious enclosures. Finally, as the tale of survival grows taller and taller, climaxing at the floating island, we, the readers, are asked whether we can give up our enclosure of pure fact and be comfortable in the wider habitat of narrative fiction.
Will Ang Lee's film deal with any of this? Unlikely. But since the book is about storytelling, we should feel deeply satisfied if the film carries us for a few hours. The previews promise at least that.