Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi


Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi

Have you seen the movie ‘Life of Pi’? Not the book, the movie.  The book, what can I say? Loved the beginning where the protagonist is sampling different religions, loved the end where (spoiler alert!) it’s not clear which of the stories he tells is true. But the middle? Honestly, a boy—Pi— in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

I heard somewhere it called magic realism but I guess I’m just not refined enough to get it. To me, it was a boy in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

So, I was a bit reluctant to see the movie given the boy-boat-tiger thing. However, Ang Lee is such a good director and he was getting a lot of praise for the movie, so I allowed myself to be coerced into seeing it. And, as anticipated, the whole boy on tiger thing played prominently even though Ang Lee did an amazing job with the visuals.

But it wasn’t that which struck me as the master stroke.

Two possible endings in the Life of Pi

In the last scenes, Pi is relating his story to the insurers of the boat. They don’t believe the tiger thing, so to satisfy them, he makes up a story about he, his mother and the ship’s cook surviving in the boat (sans tiger). He says the cook killed his mother and then died himself. The insurers go away with a story they can accept.

But that’s not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is how that last scene is shot. Gérard Depardieu, the famous French actor, appears for about a minute at the beginning of the film as the cook being nasty to the boy’s mother on board before the disaster. That’s all we see of him.

Which was odd. Would Depardieu sign on for a minute on screen? I don’t think any famous actor would accept what is essentially a bit part. And then it hit me.

The power of show over tell

I would bet money Ang Lee (well, a small amount) originally filmed an entire alternate story with featured Depardieu’s character of the cook prominently. But when it came to the editing, he realized that if he showed (SHOW) the scenes with the cook on the boat, it would become too real and compete with the story which we have just spent two hours watching. So, instead, he has Pi just tell (TELL) the story. And because we don’t see the alternate story, as viewers, we believe the one we were shown.

This is a wonderful example of the power of ‘show’. When you tell something, as in the alternate story, it has some power but when you show it, as in the story in the movie, it is the reality we buy.

This is why writing teachers harp so much on ‘show’ versus ‘tell.’ ‘Tell’ gives you one effect and ‘show’ another. In the post called Showing Show and Tell, I’ll walk you through an example how to use the power of show in your writing.