Archive for December, 2012

Lists of Best

As the calendar year draws to a close, ’tis the season to draw lists of best this and that.  Lists of the best books or the best films are appearing in newspapers and magazines. I always scan the lists with a certain fascination and then with mounting annoyance, because I really do not put much credence on pronouncements that any ten items cited are the only “bests” in a universe of outstanding artistic production. I have a sneaking suspicion that the works that appear on the makers’ lists can be more accurately described as the most memorable ones of the year to them, for there is something about the experience of reading the book or viewing the film, which sticks in the memory.

There are two movies of 2012 that will stick in my mind: Life of Pi and The Hobbit.  Having read both books several times, I was excited about going to see them on the big screen in 3D; normally, I prefer to watch films at home. The experience did not disappoint, and I’ll join the best-list makers by pronouncing the film adaptations were the best which any director probably could hope to accomplish. Best is never quite good enough when trying to pour the scope of a literary classic into a movie of a few hours. Peter Jackson must have despaired of the task, for the second half of The Hobbit will be released in 2013. What the movies did accomplish is to instill a burning desire in me to reread these two books once again. Last night I pulled out a copy of The Hobbit for my bedtime reading.  After I came home from seeing Life of Pi, I desperately searched bookcases for my copy without success. I knew that was one book I did not give to the Salvation Army. I was perplexed until my sister informed me I had lent the book to her.

Excellent as the film renderings of the tiger Richard Parker, the orangutan Orange, the zebra and the hyena are in Life of Pi, the movie could not possibly include all the humorous passages in which Pi practices three religions or cover the philosophical implications of Pi’s discoveries about animal behavior versus human behavior.  Pi’s examination of the survival manual in the lifeboat also contains some comic relief in a desperate situation. The conclusion offers the viewer two versions of the story. The choice of which story to believe–the more imaginative and fantastic and consequently the more enjoyable version; or the matter-of-fact more realistic one and consequently horrible revelation of human beings as also carnivorous animals–equates with the choice to believe in God or not to believe in God.  The author, Yann Martel, infers the belief in God is a better story.

Life of Pi enshrines story-telling as a fundamental impulse of mankind. Pi’s story is richly layered, funny at times, nuanced with metaphysical speculation on the nature of reality and man’s relation to the animal kingdom. On a basic level, it can be simply read as a riveting fable.  The movie successfully suggests all these threads in the book’s variegated tapestry.  Because the novel draws from literary tradition from around the world and the fable form might engage reluctant teen readers, I selected it for my sophomore English class to read during my year of high-school teaching. I also selected it because there was no movie version out at the time. Half of the class read the book and the other half asked to see the movie.

I have memories of reading aloud Tolkien’s The Hobbit and trilogy to my son before he fell asleep. What a bedtime story it still is!