Life of Pi Book vs Movie/Ending Explained Review

Life of Pi by Yann Matel (2001)

Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee (2012)

Book and movie plot

The book and movie have a few differences, but the overall plot is the same.

A teenager named Pi (it is his nickname; his given name is Piscine) lives in India where his father runs a zoo. They decide to move to Canada and are going to sell some of the animals to other countries. He, his parents, and his brother travel aboard a cargo vessel along with different zoo animals that are being sold.

The ship sinks, and Pi is left on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutang, and a tiger. The hyena kills the injured zebra and the orangutang, and then the tiger ends up killing the hyena.

Pi is then left with the tiger, which is named Richard Parker and is ferocious, but Pi is able to tame it to some extent, but he also builds a raft from the lifejackets so that the tiger can have the lifeboat as its primary territory.

The two of them learn to survive together, before then landing on an island of algae that has thousands of meerkats. They stay on this island and eat the food and drink the fresh water provided, but at night the tiger goes back to the boat and Pi sleeps in a tree, as do the meerkats. Pi realizes that the water and ground becomes toxic at night, and even finds human teeth in the tree he is sleeping in.

He had been content on this island, but learning it is carnivorous makes him realize they have to leave.

He waits till Richard Parker comes back on the lifeboat, and then the sail off. They then land on the coast of Mexico where Richard Parker runs off and Pi is saved. He is sad that Richard Parker left and he never had a chance to say goodbye and thank him.

While in the hospital, he is visited by men associated with the cargo ship and they want to know what happened. He tells the story but they say it is ridiculous.

Pi then tells them another story, wherein he says on the lifeboat it was his mother, the cook from the ship, a sailor, and himself. The cook was a demented person basically and, he kills the sailor as well as Pi’s mom. Pi then kills the cook and is left alone for the remainder of his time.

These are the two stories he gives the men to choose between. There is a lot of symbolism here which we will get into in a bit.

Changes from book to movie

In the book we hear much more about his time in India and we get a lot (too many) details about the animals in the zoo. We also hear more about his religious beliefs. In both, when he around 10, he chooses to be part of three different religions-Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. The way his parents learn of this in the book is when they are at this city center area, and the three teachers from each faith come up to him and everyone, his parents and these three men, tell him he can’t be part of all three and needs to choose one. Pi says he loves God though and wants to be part of all of them.

In the movie they had this very brief teen romance between Pi and a dancer. This had no point and I have no idea why they felt the need to include this.

The movie also has a scene on the ship when they are eating, and we see the cook is a very rude man, and we see a sailor who is nice to them. This is the cook we later learn is the horrible man in the lifeboat, and this kind sailor is the one that is killed. We don’t get this dinner scene in the book.

In the book, not long before they get to the algae island, Pi and Richard Parker go temporarily blind from lack of nutrients. Pi then hears a voice talking to him, he thinks the voice is his imagination, then he thinks it is Richard Parker talking (also in his imagination), then he realizes it is an actual person-a French man who is also lost at sea. The man comes on their lifeboat and he too is blind and ends up being killed by Richard Parker because he doesn’t see him. This is not in the movie. This part in the book seemed weird and I assumed it was a hallucination. But then he talks about the dead body on the boat and goes into details so I assumed it must have been real and was a crazy coincidence. We later realize though that this was fake and it represented the cook.

The book is much more graphic than the movie. When the animals are killing each other is was pretty gruesome, as well as the details with the people as well. In the movie we are told that the cook eats the sailor, as well as using him for bait, but the book just went more into things like that. The death of his mom was also much more graphic in the book. I was pretty surprised how gruesome the book was at times; I had not expected that from this.

Symbolism of the animals

In both book and movie, after he tells the second story, the person listening gathers that the second story was the truth but Pi created his own version involving the animals. The book and movie straight up tell you-the zebra represents the sailor, the hyena the cook, the orangutan his mom, and the tiger is Pi. The symbolism seemed pretty obvious and it wasn’t nessecary to literally explain it to the audience. But the book and movie leave you with other aspects that are not spoon fed so you still have aspects of the story you can speculate on.

If you see Richard Parker as being Pi, it could represent this fierce side of himself he is able to tap into in order to survive. In both, we see that when he is a child, his father makes him witness the tiger killing a goat so that he will know not to mess with the animals. Maybe he remembered that and wanted to embrace that animal side of himself in order to survive. That animal side was also brought out of him by the cook because the cooks violence brought out violence in Pi and he ends up killing the cook. This is why the tiger leaves once he reaches land, because he doesn’t need that part of him anymore.

It also makes sense to see the tiger can also be seen as representing God. God is formidable yet also beautiful and Pi says how even though Richard Parker threatened Pi’s life, at the same time has grateful to have him and apricated his majesty. In the book he also has different ideas on how to deal with the tiger, before realizes he has to learn to coexist with it. “I had to tame him. It was at that moment that I realized this necessity. It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat. We would live—or we would die—together.” This is like when someone doesn’t want God in their lives, but eventually learn to accept God and therefore finds a way to coexist.

Then he walks off when they are on land, because we feel, and need, God most when we are struggling. Pi’s struggles are coming to an end, so “God” walks away. Pi says that he will always remember Richard Parker though, showing that he will always have God in his heart.

The Algae Island symbolism

Early on in the book, Pi is saying how he dislikes agnostics more than atheists. In this section, he is saying how a dying agnostic would respond to seeing light as they are about to die,  

“the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.” He also say, “…we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

I therefore think this island represents doubt, or also just not choosing. It is a middle ground that may feed your needs, but as they say, “what the island gives to you in the day, it takes from you in the night” and you will end up dead.

It could also represent temptation and laziness. The island fills his needs, and he doesn’t have plans to leave, doesn’t aspire to anything more. It is satisfying his needs right here in the moment and that is what he cares about. Yet, when he sees that it will end up killing him, he realizes he needs to move on and using faith, he needs to continue his journey in hopes of finding something better.

He also makes sure Richard Parker is in the boat when he leaves, showing he wants God with him. While on the island he was hardly around the tiger, again showing him being in a state where he didn’t need the tiger, or God. But now that he is leaving, he wants to make sure he takes the tiger with him.

The two stories

This book and movie begin by telling us this is a story that will make us believe in God. Which seems like a cocky thing to say. Like, okay, this isn’t even a true story (even though he makes it seem like it is in the author’s note) and a lot of this book is just Matel going on and on about his spiritual ideas. He is far too heavy handed in the first third of the book and I would have liked the message more had he not laid it on so thick in his self satisfying way at the start. He comes across a bit smug I thought.

The two stories though represent life. In both stories, the ship sinks for unknown reasons, Pi’s family dies, and he survives. So if then men don’t know for themselves which is true, but both have the same outcome, which story will they choose to believe and which do they like better? They decide they like the version with the animals. Pi then says, “And so it goes with God.” Meaning that in life, we go through struggles and all die, but if we have God with us, it can make our trials bearable and can provide some comfort and beauty. It can be a struggle though, as we see how he struggles to live with Richard Parker. But with patience and care, he is able to “feed” his faith like he feeds the tiger and they can exist together.

This is a message I like for the most part, I just don’t think it was well executed with the tone in which he wrote the book.

Book vs Movie

I have already expressed some of my complaints with the book, but I also want to say that this book was pretty tough to get through. I was not drawn in but kept going because I assumed once he is on the boat with the tiger it would get more interesting. And it did for a while, but then it quickly began to drag again. It is bogged down with paragraphs about how he caught fish and other such survival details (to be fair, this is a subjective complaint because I just don’t find reading about survival things like this interesting), and we hear him go on and on about zoo animals and their behavior, and he goes on and on describing what meerkat’s look like. I am going to share a section from this part of the book so you can get an understanding of what I mean when I say he goes on and on about things. “A meerkat is a small South African mammal related to the mongoose; in other words, a carnivorous burrower, a foot long and weighing two pounds when mature, slender and weasel-like in build, with a pointed snout, eyes sitting squarely at the front of its face, short legs, paws with four toes and long, non-retractile claws, and an eight-inch tail. Its fur is light brown to grey in colour with black or brown bands on its back, while the tip of its tail, its ears and the characteristic circles around its eyes are black. It is an agile and keen-sighted creature, diurnal and social in habits, and feeding in its native range—the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa—on, among other things, scorpions, to whose venom it is completely immune. When it is on the lookout, the meerkat has the peculiarity of standing perfectly upright on the tips of its back legs, balancing itself tripodlike with its tail. Often a group of meerkats will take the stance collectively, standing in a huddle and gazing in the same direction…” And that isn’t even the whole section! It is just totally unessecary, we know what meerkats are!! Even if we don’t, we can gather from context clues what they look like. I get he may see Pi as describing animals like this since he grew up around a zoo, but it was still too much unneeded descriptions.

While I like the overall message and it is cool symbolism, I think the story falls short due to the overexplaining and the tediousness of it as well as him coming across a bit self-righteous about his faith. I think the story with the people which we get at the end would have made the more interesting novel if he just expanded that part. But I get his goal wasn’t to write a story about a teenager surviving a shipwreck and the drama that enfolded with the others on the lifeboat, but it was to write a story showing how we should all believe in God.

The movie stays true to the story, while benefiting from having the visuals. We also get decent performances and the movie doesn’t drag quite as much as the book does.

I don’t plan to watch the movie again, but I also know without a doubt. I will never read the book again. In the end, I will say the movie wins. If you like the book, you will like the movie, and if you like the movie I would say it isn’t necessary to read the book.

If you want a book involving people stranded at sea that actually could make you believe in God-read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.