Symbolism in ‘Life of Pi’
My chosen symbol is the carnivorous floating island, or Algae Island.
Technique 1: One technique used to show the carnivorous floating island as a symbol is a wide shot.
Example: At night on the island, one notable shot the audience sees is a wide shot. This shot shows the entirety of the island, allowing the audience to see that it is shaped like a human lying down.
Meaning: There are many theories as to what the island’s shape could represent. One common theory is that it could represent the cook, who murdered Pi’s mother, and was then killed by Pi in self defence. It is theorised that Pi was forced to eat the dead cook’s body in order to keep himself alive in his alternate story, while in the story with the zoo animals, the island provides sustenance for him with its nutritious roots, saving him from death.
Purpose: I think that the director wants to show, using this wide shot, that Pi feels terrible about how he had to eat the cook in order to survive. The shot seems quite eerily lit, which could show how he feels guilt about what he did, and feels torn apart on the inside.
Effect: The audience may feel sorry for what Pi has had to go through, because he is feeling extremely guilty for doing what he felt he was forced to in order to survive.
Relevance: This is relevant to the audience because they may remember times they have said or done something to someone else that they later regretted, even though it may have seemed like the only logical decision at the time.
Technique 2: Another technique used to show the carnivorous floating island as a symbol is lighting.
Example: During the day, the Algae Island is lit brightly and looks inviting when Pi first comes across it. However, during the night, Algae Island becomes very darkly lit, and the phosphorescent water glows with an emerald green.
Meaning: One theory in relation to the lighting of the island is that it could symbolise Pi’s inner struggle. Usually, he is a peaceful and quiet person. This is symbolised by the bright daylight of the island. However, during the film, he has to embrace his dark side and make decisions that require him to be violent (such as murdering the cook), which could be represented by the darkness and haunting green colours of the island during the nighttime. His dark side attempts to consume him – exactly like the island does.
Purpose: I think that the director wants to show the audience how Pi is filled with grief and that he is struggling to comprehend what he has done. As a result, he may have subconsciously replaced the cook with the island as a way of dealing with this stress.
Effect: As a result of this symbolism, the audience feels sympathetic for Pi because they can see he is consumed by grief, and also because they know how difficult it would be to be put into a situation like the one Pi was put into.
Relevance: In this section of the movie, the audience may remember times they have embraced the dark side of themselves in order to prosper, even if their examples are less extreme than that of Pi. For example, they may have cheated in a game or lied to protect their reputation.
Technique 3: One technique used to show the contents of the carnivorous island is diegetic sound.
Example: During the day, Pi comes across a colony of Meerkats on Algae Island. They are very loud and chatter excitedly to one another in the bright daylight. The chatter is an example of diegetic sound.
Meaning: In Zimbabwean culture, meerkats represent sun angels that protect people from werewolves. It is possible that the meerkats on the island symbolise something similar – possibly safety. They give Pi the impression that the island is safe because they live on it happily. The bright daylight they are in, and the scene’s warm colours further validate this idea.
Purpose: The director may be showing, through the example of the meerkats, that Pi wants to feel safe, and the cute, excited meerkats and their chattering are helping him to take his mind off his feelings of guilt and stress. It is likely, that, like the island, the meerkats are not real and are dreamt up by Pi.
Effect: As a result of the meerkats’ symbolism, the audience may feel sad that Pi has been put in a position where he has been forced to dream of more positive things to take his mind off the stress and guilt that have enveloped him. They could also realise that the situation Pi has been placed in is far more difficult to get through than they originally thought.
Relevance: In this section of the movie, the audience may recall times when they have been stressed in everyday life and have done things such as watched television or played a game in order to take their minds off the current situation.
Why is symbolism a key aspect of a blockbuster film?
I believe that symbolism is a key aspect of any film because it adds depth of understanding and gives a film a greater meaning – something seemingly obvious can relate to a deeper concept. An example of this in ‘Life of Pi’ is Pi’s name. It is an irrational, infinitely long number, as Pi explains at the beginning of the story, that the human brain cannot comprehend. Pi’s name could also symbolise the circumstances he was placed in; they are so hard to believe, that he has to change them to make them easier to comprehend.
Another reasons symbols are interesting and important is because they can often be interpreted in many ways, and provoke debate between viewers long after the film has ended. Symbolism also provides a major reason to watch a movie multiple times after the first viewing; the audience wants to gain an understanding of the deeper messages that they did not pick up on in the first viewing. In Life of Pi, symbolism is important because it connects Pi’s first story (the one that includes the zoo animals) to his second (where the animals are replaced with people). It gives the audience a reason to watch the film again, after it is revealed that the story depicted in the movie may not be entirely correct. They feel the need to find symbols or motifs in the movie as to whether Pi’s alternate story is correct or not.