Ronald R. Thomas
Vol. 40, No. 3 Spring 2013
Chuck Luce
Cathy Tollefson ’83
Associate Editor,
Julie Reynolds
Ross Mulhausen
Photographer, unless
credited otherwise
Kari Vandraiss ’13
Alumni Council Executive Committee
David Watson ’92,
Leslie Skinner
Brown ’92,
Vice President;
Amy Ma
Winterowd ’99,
Eric Herzog ’94;
Allison McCurdy Kalalau ’03, M.A.T.’04;
Jenny Lai ’05; Ken McGill ’61,
Past President;
Sunshine Morrison ’94;
James Oppenheimer ’14,
Student Alumni
Association President;
Mark Penaroza ’02;
David Poston ’85; Andrea Tull ’02; Steve
White ’68; Ed Wilder ’86
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and the redemptive awe of C.S. Lewis’ Narnian
tales. It is Daniel in the lion’s den and Ishmael
surviving the great white whale. It is Conrad’s
Lord Jim,
and Hobbes’s
all in one. Call me Ishmael. Call me
Pi. Only I am escaped. And I am escaped to
tell—the story—to you. And the telling of that
story is both the means and the end of my
survival—of my being alive. Life of Pi.
And then, just as it seems to close, Pi’s
story twists in the telling and opens up again
when he must provide an account of his
ordeal to insurance adjusters investigating the
shipwreck. The investigators don’t believe the
wild tale of tigers and zebras and hyenas on
a lifeboat, regardless of how much Pi insists
upon its truth, and demand of him a neater
and more credible account. Worn down by
their persistence at last, Pi tells a tale they can
believe, this time about an equally harrow-
ing adventure on the lifeboat—accompanied
not by a tiger but by two sailors and his
mother, who escape the ship with him and
who assume the parts played by the animals
in the first tale, murdering and cannibalizing
each other until only Pi is left. It is an allegory
of his earlier tale of the tiger. Or, the novelist
begins to wonder, is it the other way around,
with the tiger tale serving as an allegory of
human cruelty and bestiality? In the end Pi
asks the novelist (and the reader) to decide
which story is best.
This philosophical and self-reflective
novel—tale within tale within tale—focusing
upon more than half a year on the ocean with
a Bengal tiger for a companion, was thought
to be unfilmable. Until Ang Lee made a 3-D
visual masterpiece of it and won the Academy
Award for best director this year (and a host
of other awards, including an Oscar for Walt
Jones ’01, see page 34). Lee had yet another
story to tell, drawn from the same material, in
which he spun a version of
Life of Pi
in images
rather than words. What we see on screen is
spectacular—magical, precise, believable, har-
rowing. It’s a grand illusion, of course, as any
film is—a spectacle in the best sense. But the
illusion works. And what we don’t see is, per-
haps, more unbelievable than the tale it tells.
Before he even began shooting, Lee “pre-
visualized” the film by transforming the novel
into a cartoon so he could see it, and then
made the cartoon into models so he could
lend the vision perspective and depth. Only
then did he build a set and start to block and
shoot the film. To simulate the storm-tossed
Pacific in a way that could be convincingly
represented on film, Lee had a giant swim-
ming pool (his own “Piscine”) carved into a
Taiwanese airport runway—250 feet long and
feet wide. This artificial set became a world
unto itself in which giant wind blowers and
water cannons generated typhoon-level gales
and swells. Combined with strategic camera
work and digital effects, whatever strained the
imagination in the novel seems irresistibly real
on screen. Almost none of the Bengal tiger
scenes involved an actual tiger. Illusion, again.
Pi’s fierce companion was uncannily rendered
in 3-D by more than 300 artists and computer
scientists working endless hours over a period
of years and across continents. Elaborate com-
puter-based analyses of how a Bengal tiger’s fur
moves over muscle and bone informed the art-
ists and made the animation indistinguishable
from footage of a real tiger.
Ang Lee made an interesting choice in his
telling of the novel’s alternate representations
of the shipwreck, evoking the tiger version in
stunning visual detail as if we were there, and
allowing the human version, told for the insur-
ance company, to be related only in words and
materialized only in a typed report. No props,
no effects—virtually unrealized as a cinematic
experience. Evidently the filmmaker made the
same story choice in images that the novelist
had made in words: He chose the tiger tale.
And so, in Lee’s version of the story we
come full circle. We are back to elaborate
calculations again, constructing ordinary
shapes and dimensions in infinite digits that
are at once real and irrational, factual and
transcendental, seen and only imagined—but,
somehow, ubiquitous and commonplace.
We all live in the tales we tell, in the circle of
our own lives, with a fierce companion at our
side, threatening our existence and giving shape
to our life stories. We live in the relationship
between the circumference of our life’s wander-
ings and the through line of its diameter. We
are in the infinitely unrepeating sequence of the
life of pi. We all have our own stories to tell, and
the responsibility to choose well.