A Superhuman Spirituality: Ang Lee’s Life of Pi

“I have a story that will make you believe in God,” an elderly man tells the narrator of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. This is the opening of a tall tale, designed to test the reader’s skepticism. Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the novel, which opens in theaters on November 21, is no less fantastic (no less magically realistic) than the novel. But, watching the film, it appeared to me that what the audience was being invited to believe in was not God, but animals—or animality itself.

Who could doubt the existence of animals? Don’t our dogs and cats stare at us with disbelief when we’ve forgotten to fill their food bowls? Don’t they curl up on our laps and purr, or plaster our hands with fetid saliva? Don’t we watch from the subway platform as fat city rats scurry along the tracks, searching for sweet bits of garbage? Sure we do—for now.

The direct physical contact that most Americans today have with non-human animals is severely limited. There is no question that domesticated animals, like dogs, cats, and (the differently domesticated) rats exist in great abundance. We may not think about it much, but we can’t question the existence of animals such as cows and pigs that many of us eat. Perhaps, for most of us, there is little doubt that all of these familiar creatures will continue to exist for at least as long as we do.

But most of us are also painfully aware of the havoc that our human habits are wreaking on the domestic space of animals further from home, those real but almost undreamed of creatures that most of us never see: the whales, the great apes, the tiger.

It’s not hard to imagine a future in which many of these creatures belong to a mythical past: a future, in other words, in which they no longer exist. To ask us to believe in animals is, in one sense, to remind us of the imminent possibility of their non-existence… as if we might will them, with our belief, back from the brink of extinction.

It’s also important to recognize that the term “animal” is a conceptual construct—one that belongs to human language. It is a blanket term that is meant to apply to a whole universe of entities, and bodies, as if there were something categorically similar about each of them. What is that similarity? To put it bluntly: that although humans are animals, when we think about “animals,” none of them are humans. To believe in animality is, in another sense, to believe in a broad category of existence that can be distinguished from a human one.

The protagonist of Lee’s film is the adolescent Pi (short for Piscine Molitor Patel). Pi is a spiritually precocious child who is exploring the potential of a syncretistic blend of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam that he’s begun to practice. It is through his pluralistic and probing eyes that we, the viewers, begin to encounter this fictional world.

Pi has left his home in Pondicherry, on a boat with his family and a whole zoo of creatures. They are all destined for the United States, where Pi’s father intends to sell the animals so that the family can make a new life for itself in America. But the ocean liner shipwrecks, and Pi is left to float in the cold, tumultuous water with the few creatures who have also survived the wreck. The feisty hyena kills the lone zebra and the orangutan. And so Pi eventually finds himself alone with Richard Parker: the massive Bengal tiger.

The kinship that develops between boy and tiger is at the heart of the story. By the end of the film, the viewer most likely wants to believe in a world where the visually spectacular Richard Parker actually exists (I won’t spoil the entire film by raising questions, here, about why he might not.) The animal that the viewer, in other words, most likely wants to believe in is Richard Parker himself. A world where Richard Parker exists seems, from most angles, a richer and more wonderful world.

But Richard Parker, that great big creature, also serves a moral purpose. In a simple way, he “saves” Pi from becoming a more beastly and animalistic version of himself. Richard Parker gives Pi, formerly a vegetarian, an excuse to spear fish to feed them both… among other things. Richard Parker absorbs the animality—or the animal acts—on the boat and allows Pi to remain more “humane.”

Lee presents us with a whole menagerie of creatures apart from the tiger. Viewers will, I suspect, find themselves awed by their almost mythical, almost fantastic, screen presence. But I think they may also find themselves wanting to believe in a world where these creatures really do (and always will) exist. In the zoo scenes, in the shipwreck, on the little tiny survivor’s boat, these creatures leap out of Lee’s 3D imagery. Their bodies seem, incredibly, close enough to touch. They seem real, and strong. They are at times a bit frightening. But for the most part they are simply glorious. Their eyes gaze right at the viewer. Their muscles ripple.

And then the film introduces creatures who emerge out of the depths of the ocean: bioluminescent plankton who litter the water like stars, flying fish who whiz through the air like speeding bullets, massive whales who playfully turn disruptive ocean flips in the dark of night (do whales really do that?).

Lee’s digital tools allow him to generate images that would be impossible to capture on film. They allow his creatures to do things that they, in their actual leathery skins, might never do. And Lee seems to carefully project a kind of sacred aura around their animal bodies—they give off an almost holy glow. And he does not depict them in situations that would disrupt this glory.

When Pi does manage to kill a meaty fish, one that he intends to eat, Lee does not give us a visual of Pi’s blade cutting into the fish’s body. Instead, we see Pi pull a large, tidy, sushi steak onto the screen and bite into it like any “civilized” human might do in a fine Japanese restaurant. The meat that Pi eats is abstracted from its animal body. We, the viewers, do not have to face the dead and wounded body of the fish. Instead, the creatures who animate Lee’s screen are all full of life: they leap, they roar, they cannot be subdued. They live, and live, and live.

Saving Us From Ourselves

There’s something really hopeful about this. It scratches a certain romantic itch that I know I have, and that I probably share with a lot of people. The movie makes me believe in the power of living, lively, lovely animal bodies. It makes me believe that the world without them would be less extraordinary. And it seems to feed the idea that there is something about these creatures—about animality as such—that can save us humans from ourselves, from imminent ecological catastrophe.

That is to say, these fantastic animals appear to offer some sort of salvation. It’s as though, if we’re able to really believe in animals, another sort of world might be possible. And animality, animal bodies, are the gateways to this alternate universe.

This proposition may sound a bit delusional. Perhaps it also sounds a bit dangerous (as delusions often are). But it wouldn’t have sounded odd to the notorious scholar of myth and religion, Mircea Eliade. In his 1957 book Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, he argued that there is something about the human connection with non-human animals that reveals a kind of nostalgia for Eden before the fall, a paradise.

Eliade believed that human individuals who were able to “befriend” animals, to speak what he called the “language of the animals,” might be capable of accessing an almost superhuman spiritual life. They were taking one step closer towards renewing the fabled harmony between humans and animals that is central to many paradise myths. He believed that anthropological data on shamans substantiated his claims. But he also believed that we see a clear example of this in the Christian figure of Saint Francis, who famously preached his gospels to the birds and the fish and has been formally declared the “patron saint of ecology.”

The philosopher Jacques Derrida also argued, in some of his last lectures, that in a culture where the human being is understood to be the figure of sovereign authority—the figure that holds the reins of political power—divinity and animality bleed into one another in a kind of excluded space. The more powerful humanity becomes, in other words, the less power is held by those elements that humanity excludes, such as divinity or animality. The result, he suggests, is that we’re left with a kind of “divinanimal” exclusion.

Environmental thinkers have long charged that “Western” culture, particularly contemporary North American culture, and particularly Christianity, is anthropocentric. Everything revolves around the human being, like planets around the sun. Together, I think, Eliade’s and Derrida’s ideas bring divinity and animality close together: they become intimate in ways that exclude humans, or that beckon to them.

Are we haunted by the figures of divinity and animality that have been pushed to the fringes of our cultural and political existence? From those fringes, where animals and the divine exist, do they begin to blend strangely together? Do the gods begin to appear in the form of animals? And do animals seem to leave their footprints along the paths toward salvations? Do they, together, whisper to us their promises of another world? Of something greater than human being?

Perhaps, in his film version of The Life of Pi, Lee is making more explicit a theme that already existed in the novel. Perhaps the faith in animals that we see in Lee’s film isn’t that radically different from the faith in God that Martel’s novel suggests the narrator will gain, in the end. They each, after all, call us toward a certain kind of benevolent inhumanity. How convincing is their case? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.


Beatrice is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Drew University in Madison, NJ. She also works as a writer, editor, and communications consultant, specializing in ideas at the crowded intersection of theology, philosophy, faith and public/political life in North America.