“So you want another story?”
“Uhh… no. We would like to know what really happened.”
“Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?”
Edward Bloom isn’t a man at all. He’s more of a legend, a fast-paced trail of stories, adventures, and experiences that are literally too wild to be true. Written by Daniel Wallace in 1998, the whimsical and heartbreaking story was adapted into a film by Tim Burton in 2003. I won’t say that the film version of Big Fish is superior to the novel, since the two are vastly different creatures that happen to share an overarching idea and a handful of character names, but the fantastical world created by the film proves to be a vividly colorful place that weaves a new tale from the novel’s more disjointed anecdotes.
While the novel is charming, poignant, and entertaining in its’ own right, the film manages to capture the essence of the story and transform it into an amazing and perplexing tale, a cohesive story that borrows characters and motivations while breathing a new life into them, a fresh story that reaches beyond even the fantastical feats of the novel. The underlying struggles of the narrator, Edward Bloom’s son, remains the same, as he hopes desperately to reconcile the man his father is with the plethora of unrealistic stories he’s been told throughout his life. But as the novel’s author, Daniel Wallace, writes, “No one sees the same story. We envision the story the way it suits us, and take away from it what’s important to us.” The film is an exaggerated tall tale of the tall tales told by Edward Bloom. Funny how life works like that sometimes.
“That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?” Yann Martel, Life of Pi
“Y’see, most men, they’ll tell a story straight through— it won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting either.” Big Fish, Film
It struck me during one of my late night rewatches that this exploration of storytelling and the value of truth in story resonates deeply with the thematic point of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, in which the main character Pi spends 227 days adrift at sea. The story he returns home with is one of survival and hardship, vicious zoo animals, unlikely strangers met on the great wide ocean, a carnivorous island, and an unbelievable companion in the form of a great Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker.
Life of Pi was one of those books I was required to read in high school English. And because I had a strong aversion to what I considered “forced” reading at the time, I decided relying on sparknotes and summaries and generally bullshitting my way through the assignments would be perfectly fine. Then, of course, I promptly devoured the book over the next break and, again of course, loved it.
Both stories explore the differentiation between tall tales and honest stories, the idea of flat truth versus what Yann Martel refers to as “the better story”, and how the meaning conveyed by the tale remains the same even if the details are tweaked. For Martel’s narrator, the argument exists around the question of religion, as he recounts his own spiritual journey, the stories he learns of each religion, and the discoveries that the underlying messages are often the same, despite the different cast of characters.
The stories that William Bloom struggles with throughout Big Fish are a little closer to home, perhaps, as he tries to figure out where the truth ends and the stories start in order to finally understand his dying father–a man whom he feels largely estranged to. Martel’s novel explores how tall tales affect faith, whereas Big Fish explores the desire of one man to become a legend. Because this is what Edward Bloom strives for. “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”
Whether we’re trying to understand one man or an entire system of faith, the use of stories, be they tall tales or factual accounts, influence our experiences more than most probably even realize. There’s one concept both authors certainly hold to great importance. For Yann Martel’s Pi, “the world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?” William Bloom is told by one of his father’s acquaintances that “we all have stories, just as you do. Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us money, sold it to us wholesale. Lots of stories, big and small. They all add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up.” It’s always a story.
“Did your father ever tell you about the day you were born?”
“A thousand times. He caught an uncatchable fish.”
“Not that one. The real story. Did he ever tell you that?”
“Your mother came in about three in the afternoon. Her neighbor drove her, on account of your father was on business in Wichita. You were born a week early, but there were no complications. It was a perfect delivery. Now, your father was sorry to miss it, but it wasn’t the custom for the men to be in the room for deliveries then, so I can’t see as it would have been much different had he been there. And that’s the real story of how you were born. Not very exciting, is it? And I suppose if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one involving a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancy version. But that’s just me.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
We see two sides of the same coin via these narrators: while Piscine believes adamantly that the embellished, larger than life tale makes for the better story (much as Edward Bloom does), William Bloom is desperate to erase the tall and learn more about the true deeds, actions, and habits of his father. At the beginning of this story, Will Bloom is so focused on learning the truth that he completely disregards all of his father’s stories as worthless embellishments holding nothing truthful or honest. He’s frantically searching for the reason behind his father’s life.
But as Pi points out, “Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.” It may take a while, but by the end of the story William Bloom comes to understand this.
After all, it’s not the details of the story that matter so much as what is taken away. Does it make any difference whether the women Ed Bloom meets overseas are regular twins or actually conjoined at the hip? When the facts solve nothing, prove nothing, mean nothing in the larger scale of things, how important is it whether or not Richard Parker the tiger actually spent nearly a year on a lifeboat with Pi?
“You’re not necessarily supposed to believe it…You’re just supposed to believe in it.” Big Fish, Novel
And isn’t that just the great beauty of storytelling?