Let’s Fact Check the Oscar-Winner ‘Life of Pi’

So maybe Life of Pi didn’t take the whole Oscar cake (forgive me, father, for my puns). But the movie was definitely a winner – best director, best visual effects, best cinematography, best score. It was also the highest-grossing Oscar nominated film … in India last year, where it took in a reported $17 million.

That’s all good news here at Nat Geo, because Pi is a very Nat Geo kind of film. There’s a tiger, a zebra, and a teenager in a lifeboat (spoiler alert: one of them gets eaten), and various other natural wonders, mainly re-created through the technological wonders of CGI.

If you were a fan, or if you’re curious about the movie’s depiction of the natural world, you may wonder: How true-to-life was “Pi?” For answers, we turned to ace reporter Sasha Ingber:

1. Forced to share space in a small lifeboat, the teenager known as Pi avoids being attacked by the tiger known as Richard Parker. That would be a real feat if the tiger is indeed ravenous. But it’s not beyond the pale. “A tiger would be more likely to leave someone alone if it had plenty of food, was busy doing other things, or was too weak to move,” says Philip Nyhus, associate professor of environmental studies at Colby College and a tiger guru. But please, don’t try to “pet the kitty.”

2. Richard Parker dines on the decomposing body of the zebra on the boat. Like vultures, tigers will eat rotten meat. They’re just not as picky when it comes to eating as we are: The striped cat possesses only about 500 taste buds compared to a human’s 9,000. “Tigers may spend a week or more eating a large carcass they have killed, and in the tropics where it is hot and moist, meat starts to decompose in a couple of days,” says Nyhus.

3. One glorious day, flying fish rain down upon the starving Pi and Richard Parker, who use their hands and mouths to catch the unexpected meal. Flying fish are commercially fished in Japan, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and Barbados, which is nicknamed “the land of the flying fish.” In some places, such as the Solomon Islands, the fish are caught while in flight with nets. They are attracted to the light of the fishermen’s torches, especially if there is little moonlight.

4. Pi and Parker land on a lush island that becomes carnivorous by night. What the what? Well, it’s not so far off from the truth. According to University of Colorado ecology professor John Patrick, “In the good old day, we could split things into plants and animals,” but now we know about flesh-eating algae [Pfiesteria]. It emerges from sediments to prey on schools of the foraging menhaden fish. Reports of fatigue, headaches, diarrhea, skin rashes and memory problems among people exposed to the algae can be traced back to the 1990s. The carnivorous algae has been found as south as the Gulf of Mexico and as far north as the Delaware Bay. Scientists debate the algae’s feeding strategies; it may release a toxin or devour skin by sucking out the cellular content (known as “cellular vampirism”).

5. Pi shares his story of survival with men from Japan’s Ministry of Transport who question its validity. They begin by doubting his description of a floating raft of bananas, but they themselves are wrong. Bananas will float in water because water is denser than bananas.

6. Pi spent 227 days adrift at sea. Is that even possible? Hey, not only is it possible, it’s nothin’. In the 19th century, Japan’s Captain Oguri Jukichi and two crew members survived at sea for 484 days. In 1813, his ship was bound for Edo (now known as Tokyo). A storm damaged the vessel on the Japanese coast; the men drifted in the Pacific until an American ship rescued them along the coast of California in 1815.

7. How long could Pi last without water or food? National Geographic interviewed Duke University Claude Piantadosi on this very topic in 2009. Your body loses about a quart of water a day and it must be replaced. If not, you probably wouldn’t last a week. And you could probably make it for about 45 days without food, but if you drop a third of your body weight, the Grim Reaper will likely come calling, perhaps aided by disease that can take a toll on a weakened soul.

  • Solph

    Just wondered if someone has asked the experts about the possibility of tiger being able to pull the goat through the narrow bars (goat body size much bigger and tiger claws too big to fit through too) and why we saw just little blood. Lots of people seemed to hold their disbelief of the scene.

  • Arlene Ellis

    Thanks for writing such a fun, yet educational article. Now this is my type of fact-checking. I especially appreciated the factoid about a tiger’s tastebuds. Learned something new! I love NatGeo 🙂

  • Unknown

    you posted #3 two times! Once as the flying fish and once as the carnivorous island.

  • Bruce Carter

    It could have been a much better movie if a lot of the multiple religion stuff and other background had been omitted. The flashback nature of the film also detracted. Just get ’em on the lifeboat, fast paced adventure sequence, then done in 45 minutes less than the overly long theatrical version. That would have been a much better movie!

  • Paula

    Wow! Very interesting. I loved the book, but always wondered if he could have survived drifting on the seas so long in real life. Thanks!

  • Frank

    Solph, if you read the book the goat is actually put into a sperate room in the cell and then a shared wall is lifted giving the tiger an open shot at the goat. I thikn the director changed quite a bit of the book to make it more “family friendly”

  • Rubbish Eat Rubbish Grow

    Nice one but “beyond the pale” usually means not respectable. I think you mean “it’s not implausible.”

  • El

    While this is nicely informative and educational… IIt doesn’t matter that it wasn’t accurate, as it was a story made up by the boy. It was metaphorical and about what people would rather believe, especially when his story had no impact on the main event of things (how the ship went down). I’m sure a lot of people are aware of this already, but can’t help but feel the way this article approaches the movie might encourage people to think otherwise of Life of Pi – which personally, I found a really great, deep movie.

  • Maximilian Weinzierl

    the film is a fairy tale for adults and as such I have also understood it

  • Someguy

    as arlene said…
    very educational thanks you so much…
    in my country the name of this movie is “an extraordinary adventure”. so i think it doesnt really matter if some scenes are not possibles.(but if they are, great… it gives some magic to the movie)
    PD: sorry about my bad english i’m better reading…

  • Rob

    Love this article, very fun and interesting, and definitely going to check out this movie soon!

  • Vanan

    carnivorous island was quite hard to believe. not it seems remotely plausible. Thank you for the article.

    @Solph ~ If I remember correctly, in the book, the scene describing the goat being fed to the tiger was very different (chapter 8). I guess they took some creative liberty while making the movie 🙂

  • sandip paswan

    Thank u for sharing this with us…….

  • Hisham

    just you forgot to talk about jellyfish and the fact of its lighting as a reflection to moon light 😉 .. it was so wonderful ..
    many thanks for the great topic

  • Pieter le Grange

    Interesting to compare the movie to the real facts but for me it was one of the best movies ever because of the symbolism in the movie. The Tiger being Pi’s inner self, the Zebra his mother and the hyena the butcher. When the hyena killed the Zebra, the tiger came and killed the hyena which makes perfectly sense because when “the butcher” killed his “mother”, Pi killed the Butcher. The fantasy island…To long on the open water causes hallucinations. Eventually Pi made inner peace with what happened to him (The part where the tiger and Pi became “friends”. So why make up the pretty circus story with the animals…First of all, Pi came out of a family where he was well aware of zoo animals. Second, when children go through something very difficult in their lives it is common for them to make up a story to hide from the truth, to make the truth easier to live with..

  • Avnishrai

    @ Solph: I don’t know if you’ve seen this before but here in Mauritius we tend to have lots of stray dogs, and even if we have gates that have narrow bars in between, the dogs, even the fattest one, can get through it. Not comparing a dog to a goat but it’s probably do-able for them.

  • Avinash

    this article has answered every question i had after watching the movie. highly appreciated 🙂

  • Tina

    You DO know it was all metaphor and there were no facts to check, right? Just checking….

  • sheena sahni vora

    Superb article. Loved the film n really like the article too.

  • J

    Tina, you DO know that its open ended. That you actually chose whether or not it was all a metaphor or if happened literally. Youll notice the first part of the book and im assuming movie was about religion right? That’s the ending: either you believe in a far fetched story that is still within the realm of possibility but you cant prove (it i.e the Tiger was real) OR you believe that there were no animals and everything was cold and brutal with no imagination. The whole thing is a metaphor: Can you believe in God or not?

  • Christine

    People saying that there were no “facts” to check because Pi made up the story did not “get” the film. It’s not a metaphor. The film is about FAITH. You choose which story to believe… do you have faith in the story Pi tells, or do you want to rely on things you’ve seen before?

  • lakshmikanth

    wodeful movie. no words for the visual effects. If u listen the Score of the film it was amazing. I thank to the director . He shown his respect to india @ oscar stage .no words for him n the movie. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Jefferson

    Great article!

  • JZ

    Of course God had a guiding hand in the events of the story. Otherwise, PI would have ended up in Winnipeg!!!

  • Grannie Cool

    It’s not supposed to be accurate. It was an allegorical tale. READ the BOOK.

  • Grannie Cool

    Does anyone making comments here know the meaning of the word ALLEGORY ? It was an allegorical tale. READ the BOOK ! There are even book club versions & teacher’s guides & study guides to the book.

  • Kajsa Lundeen

    WAIT! the algae island wasn’t totally made up? oh great now my English class will have an EVEN longer discussion. its not like we spent most of the first quarter talking about the book or anything. 😛

  • daryl wakeham

    the island is life itself..life-sustaining and predatory. it is also an allegorical reference to Islam, the meerkats bowing down to the pool which provides the fish. when i asked my students why the 100 chapters in the novel, an Ismali shot up his hand, “that’s easy sir, in the Koran there are 99 knowable names of God, the 100th is you.” thanks for the article.

  • naman

    The movie was fine. But, it did left a lot of questions unanswered. It began with the introduction to mainly 3 religions and it was done basically to put a perspective on God. As, no one religion was complete in itself and thus the boy tried to seek God through practicing 3 religions all at once. It rose my interest till that point as he said that at the end of the story the Englishmen would start believing in God because of the proof that he will provide.
    The story lost it’s audience when it showed that island which was undergoing radical changes every 12 hours. Even though, this island was meant to be symbolic. But,at this point the movie lost it’s plot. And it suddenly became unrealistic and unbelievable as that imaginative island was supposed to be the core evidence for the belief in God. So, the whole point became flawed!

  • Sudha

    Here is my take: just saw the movie on Star Movies in Oct, 2013. I think the bottomline is humans are humane, and animals are animals. Plants too are more animal than human. WHY? The thread of thought starts with Pi seeing emotion in the tiger’s eyes in the beginning of the movie–a reflection of his own as his Dad tells him. The sailors set animals free (humane); Pi gives drinking water to Richard the tiger and also helps him climb aboard the boat (humane). He also cries like a baby when tiger goes away without a single backward glance (what a beast!) . Everyone –Chinese, the author and movie audience choose tiger story over inhuman human (cook) story.

  • The Knower

    Solph – No way the tiger could have done that. The director screw that one up for sure.

  • johny thomas

    Keep it up!! You have done the nice job having provided the latest information.

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