Tuesday, May 07, 2013
The Power of Stories: Superman, Jesus Christ, and the Life of Pi
SPOILER WARNING: Massive spoilers for Life of Pi in this post. Seriously, I'm going to reveal the whole thing.
The irony is that Life of Pi would have been much more powerful for me if I hadn't known how it was going to end, but I wasn't at all interested in seeing it until I heard the spoilers. Visual spectacle isn't enough - by itself - to lure me to a film and I have a limited tolerance for lost-at-sea/stranded-alone-on-an-island movies. With Life of Pi though, the ending lifts the film to something that's going to stick with me probably for the rest of my life.
The film's framing sequence is an adult Pi talking to an unnamed writer. The writer has recently abandoned a book that wasn't working and ran into Pi's uncle, who encouraged the writer to seek out Pi. "He said you had a story that would make me believe in God."
Most of the movie is Pi's relating that story to the writer. It's a tale of Pi's survival aboard a lifeboat with a starving tiger and - for a while anyway - some other animals. Pi's story is shot with impossible beauty: Water reflects sky perfectly, colors are hyperreal, and the story becomes even more fantastical when Pi finally lands on a carnivorous island that's shaped like a human.
Finally, Pi relates a conversation he had with a couple of insurance investigators who were looking into the cause of the sinking ship. He told them the same story that he's just told the writer, but they can't believe it. They need something realistic to put into their report, so he tells them a second, far more horrifying version.
In the second tale, the tiger and other animals are all metaphors for other characters. The story as it really happened involves a brutal cook, the death of Pi's mother, and cannibalism. Since I knew the real story going into the movie, I didn't get to experience for myself the disappointment and horror of realizing that the second story wasn't just Pi's trying to appease the investigators, but was in fact the truth. Filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg does a great job of describing that experience though in a conversation he had with David Chen on the Slashfilmcast.
Pi explains to the writer that he's told two stories that account for the 227 days Pi was lost at sea. "Neither explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum," he says. "Neither make a factual difference to you. You cannot prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it. In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer. So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story?"
The writer thinks it over. "The one with the tiger."
"And so it is with God."
As Trachtenberg points out in the link above, a filmed version of the actual events on the lifeboat would have been repulsive to watch. It would have been like Hostel or Human Centipede. As filmed though, we still experience Pi's suffering and share in his emotions without being disgusted by his actions. When he - a vegetarian - cries over having to eat a fish to survive, we can relate to that in a way that we couldn't if we understood what it was he was actually eating.
That's the power of storytelling. We use symbols to represent deeply personal experiences so that other people can relate to them.
Comics writer Chris Roberson made some waves for saying, "I believe in Superman the way some people believe in Jesus." Some folks took that as commentary on whether Superman and Jesus are fictional or non-fictional, but I understood it as being about their power as symbols. To find out for sure, I contacted Roberson and he went into some more detail. "Superman works as an aspiration figure," he said, "someone who serves as a moral model for people to follow. W.W.S.D. What Would Superman Do? Superman is powerful enough that no force or laws can restrain him, but he does good because he CHOOSES to do so. He lives by his own moral code, regardless of circumstances."
In that sense, Superman and Jesus Christ are symbols for some of the same things: compassion, sacrifice, and truth, for example. There are certainly differences between the two men, but what makes Superman an enduring figure is the example he sets of the awesome potential of humans for good. And that's essentially the same purpose that Jesus was trying to serve.
It's also interesting and sad that both have been co-opted by groups for other purposes so that they've also become symbols for less noble ideals, but that's why it's important to remind ourselves what they originally stood for. And we do that through stories, too.
In Life of Pi, Pi's uncle claims that Pi's story would make the writer believe in God. Whether or not that happened is a question that's left to the audience to figure out, but Pi's point still stands. Like with Superman, whether or not God exists as a literal being is a separate issue from what God represents. Pi's not saying that it doesn't matter whether or not God is real. He's just saying that since we can't prove it either way, the more important question is whether we - as humans - stand for the things that God (and Superman) stands for: selfless compassion and justice for others. And we come to understand those things through stories.