Verbosity Killed The Cat: Life of Pi’s Unfortunate Frame Story

Richard Parker enjoying a sea rave.

Richard Parker enjoying a sea rave.

The frame story is a harsh mistress. Many a brave storyteller have tried to utilize this narrative device with mixed results. For every Canterbury Tales there’s a Melinda and Melinda. It’s a technique that can bring an extra layer to a story, playing with time or meta fiction. But it can also be used as an obnoxious crutch, allowing writers an easy way to dump exposition. With one decision, a good story can be reduced to a dull heap of “tell-don’t-show.”

Unfortunately, Ang Lee’s latest film, the potentially great Life of Pi, falls victim to this cruel literary device. Based off of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, Life of Pi tells the story of a young man, the irrationally named Pi (short for Piscine), who finds himself lost at sea with a tiger after a tragic shipwreck (Like a cross between Cast Away and We Bought a Zoo). But here’s what’s tricky from a screenwriter’s perspective; the story is told in the first-person through an older Pi. One of the challenges of adapting a novel to the big screen is finding a way to represent internalized thought. Usually, this leads to boatloads of narration.

But writer David Magee goes one step further. Rather than simply include a voice-over, Magee sets up a frame story in which Pi relays his tale to a Canadian, Bon Iver-looking novelist who’s out of inspiration. At its best, the set-up is boring. At its worst, unbearable.

The idea isn’t inherently terrible. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. In large part, Life of Pi is about storytelling, so bringing in a writer only pushes that idea further. But it’s an unnecessary push, piling meta on top of meta with no added effect. Instead, the audience is left with bookends that derail the central story in different ways.

This tiger hates exposition.

This tiger hates exposition.

First, there’s the problem of act one. Pi uses this time to set the story up for Bon Iver (yes, the novelist will henceforth be referred to as Bon Iver, because he’s not enough of a character to earn his proper name), telling him about his unusual childhood. There’s compelling character building in these tales, but Magee insists that the images are incapable of speaking for themselves. Rather than learn about Pi’s relationship with religion through the scenes, older Pi talks over them, directly explaining his childhood philosophies.

“But wait!” you might ask, “If the novel does it, why can’t the film?” Because films and novels are different mediums. Novels are about the written word, so it makes sense for a character to explain his feelings in a first-person novel. These are internal thoughts that the reader gets to pop in to. Films, on the other hand, have the luxury of physical images. While novels can produce plenty of mental imagery, having a picture in front of you is simply a different way to experience a story. It allows filmmakers to load frames with symbols and meaning that a viewer can understand through the power of visual language.

Oh Bon Iver, you spotlight stealing Canadian novelist, you.

Oh Bon Iver, you spotlight stealing Canadian novelist, you.

Ang Lee, as opposed to Magee, seems to understand that. Once the first act concludes and Pi’s voice-over dissipates, the film recovers strong. The meditative shots of Pi floating on a massive, empty sea are often breathtaking, beautifully communicating his mental state as the days go on. With only one human being on screen for a large portion of the runtime, Lee understands that powerful visuals are crucial to keeping the story afloat. He uses everything at his disposal, including impressive 3D, to put the viewer in Pi’s head.

The rich imagery speeds viewers towards what would be an impactful emotional reveal. That is, until Bon Iver brings things to a screeching halt. The story’s conclusion all revolves around simple symbolism; it’s easy enough for a reasonably intelligent person to understand without being yawningly obvious. But Magee doesn’t seem to have faith in your average viewer’s brain. So rather than letting the symbols unfold naturally, he lets his frame do the dirty work. Bon Iver ruins a perfectly effective moment by saying “So A is B, and X is Y.” By laying everything out flat, the loaded ending is delivered like an M Night Shyamalan plot twist. And with a half-hearted “a-ha,” an almost great film shamefully sinks into a vast ocean of forgotten Oscar bait.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe most viewers wouldn’t have decoded the ending quickly enough, making Life of Pi seem like a pointless 2-hour affair. Maybe clarity is important to making stories accessible to a wide range of people. Early on in the film, Pi explains that his father named him Piscine after a French swimming pool with the clearest waters he’s ever swum in. Pi changes his name to one of the most elusive concepts in mathematics. Ultimately, Magee’s script doesn’t leave viewers with a film as mystifying and intriguing as the title Life of Pi suggests. Instead, we’re left with Life of Piscine; a brisk swim in a public pool, complete with a lifeguard ready to pull us out when the water gets too deep.

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3 responses to “Verbosity Killed The Cat: Life of Pi’s Unfortunate Frame Story

  1. Wow, I really think you missed the boat on this one– no pun intended!

    You seem to think that the entire story of Pi and the tiger on the boat is a fantasy, and that only at the end do we learn the truth of what really happened to the boy. If that were true, then you’re correct– the framing device would be unnecessary, especially Bon Iver’s extrapolation of the metaphor. But that’s not what the movie is about at all.

    The film offers the viewer the decision to believe one tale or another. There is nothing that explicitly states that one story or the other is true. The version that the viewer chooses to believe reveals his or her relationship with the concept of faith.

    Bon Iver is therefore necessary because he demonstrates this process on screen. At first, he favors the more believable, “realistic” explanation. We listen as he intuits which human corresponds to which animal in Pi’s story, and it appears that he is ready to accept the second story as the truth. Then Pi challenges him, asking which story he prefers. Bon Iver thinks, then decides, “the one with the tiger.”

    Bon Iver is a person who is able to have faith, because he rejects a more grounded tale in favor of one that seems less realistic, but is more “real” to him because it has more meaning. The film invites us to do the same, to have the same understanding of faith– that what matters is what is meaningful to us, not a singular interpretation of reality.

    None of that would have been possible without the frame, and it is given more weight to see an on-screen character (Bon Iver) go through the same process we’re asked to undertake. I believe that is also why he is not given a name– he is us.

    I invite you to see this wonderful film again and engage what you see from this perspective. The frame may be more valuable in this light.

    • I completely agree with your interpretation. I don’t personally believe that the tiger story is meant simply to be fantasy. And I do believe that the idea of the ending is meant to be about faith and everything you’ve said.

      My issue is that I don’t think the execution works. I think by first setting it up as a system to get out exposition, it cheapens the end game. Bon Iver is not a developed character. Perhaps that’s the intention, allowing viewers to put themselves in his place. But because of that, we don’t know anything about his relationship with faith. Thus, the way he interacts with it at the end doesn’t really push the point across adequately.

      And that’s why I think the ending comes off as a “plot twist” where the tiger story is fantasy. The frame story sets it up in a way that makes it seem strictly interested in narrative, as opposed to its meaning.

      Perhaps if the frame story had been presented differently, like if we’d cut back to it and discussed faith more in it, it would have worked for me. Ultimately, I see no reason why that couldn’t have been done within the story. Why not bring up these issues in the scene where he talks to the Japanese men instead?

      All personal opinion, of course, but I just don’t think the frame functions in the way its intended to.

  2. Best movie of 2012, in my opinion. I know I should defend that statement, but I really don’t have time right now … perhaps later. Excellent writing.

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