Movie Review: Does “Water for Elephants” Measure Up to the Novel?

I finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen only about nine hours before seeing the movie adaptation.  My perspective on the movie may be a little different than those reviewers who have never read the book or have not read it in a long time.  All of the details of the book were fresh in my mind, especially the last half of the book.  I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie.

There are three main characters in Water for Elephants, which mainly takes place in 1931.  Jacob Jankowski, played by Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, is a young man who runs away from his promising future as a veterinarian after his parents are killed in a car accident, leaving him with no property or money.  He just happens to jump on a train in the middle of the night that turns out to be a circus train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  Seeing as Jacob is basically a fully-qualified vet, he picks up a job on the circus.  His boss is August, played by Inglorious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz, who runs the circus and develops all of the circus acts.  August’s wife, Marlena, played by Reese Witherspoon, is one of the star attractions of the circus.  She does a horse training act with Liberty horses.

While Jacob is with the circus, August acquires a female elephant (called a bull) named Rosie, for the circus.  It has been August’s dream to have an elephant in his show.  He wants anything in his circus that would bring him up to par with the most famous circus in the country, Ringling.  They get the bull from a circus that has gone belly up, and its remains are available to the circus scavengers that happen upon it.  When August acquires Rosie, he is warned by her previous caretaker that she is dumb and cannot do anything.  Jacob is put in charge of the elephant training, but runs into trouble getting her to do any commands, even with the bull hook.  August, however, shows Jacob how to use the bull hook “properly” and manages to hit her very hard on the back of her shoulder, eventually injuring her.  Both Marlena and Jacob are not the type of people to injure an animal, so they both take an interest in getting Rosie to cooperate with August.  Unfortunately, things do not work out and Rosie ends up paying a price.

Other than the elephant, the major focal point of the film is the love that grows between Marlena and Jacob.   Although Marlena is married, she married young to an older man and her feelings grow towards Jacob.  Jacob is about as virgin as virgin can get, and he falls in love with Marlena.  August is a man with a temper and he does not take kindly to any man looking upon his wife in the way that Jacob does.

I made the mistake of reading the headline of a couple of other reviews saying that Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon did not have much of a spark on screen.  I would have to agree, but for a completely different reason.  I do not think they were given much to work with in terms of the screenplay.  The book can at some times be detailed and graphic regarding the parts with violence and sexuality.  If the film had been able to match the intensity of the book, the relationship between Marlena and Jacob (and Robert and Reese) would have translated to the audience more passionately than it did.  The film would have had a better result if it was filmed as an R-rated movie, rather than a PG-13 one.

Christoph Waltz probably gave the best performance of the film.  You knew he was a son-of-a-gun (I am using a nicer word) from the start, and he carried that well throughout the entire film.  Considering the most traumatic scene he is involved in occurs behind closed doors, the audience gets a better sense of what he is capable of as a husband, a boss, and an animal trainer.

The best costars of Water for Elephants are the animals, and most chiefly, Tai, who plays Rosie the elephant.  I am an animal trainer at a zoo, and I find it pretty amazing that a trainer can get an animal to do some of the things I saw on the screen.  Training is all built on trust and the relationship that the trainer has with the animal.  Tai is absolutely beautiful and amazing in this film.

The book and the story for the film are relatively simple ones.  What makes this a challenging book to adapt to the big screen is that it is set in a travelling circus in 1931.  The sets and props have to be fully detailed enough to transport the audience to that experience and that era.  Although I thought the sets under the big top were a little sparse, I was very impressed with the overall look and feel of the movie.  The train, the rail cars, the various tents, the menagerie cages were all beautifully done.  I cannot imagine what kind of job the set designer had finding and creating all of the sets.

I also really loved the score by James Newton Howard.  I found it to be not too overbearing in certain scenes, just a few notes from the piano, yet wild and large enough in other scenes to match the action and the spectacle going on.

The film comes close to the book, but lacks the grittiness, violence, and passion that the book has within it.  One of the first things I noticed is that the character of Uncle Al was eliminated and his role as boss in the circus was given to August, who was just the animal trainer in the book.  There are no flash backs to the nursing home.  The only time you see older Jacob, played by Hal Holbrook, is at the beginning of the film and at the end.  The back story to Marlena and how she met August is changed.  I do not know why since this was such a small part of the story, it would have had no impact on the film if it was kept the same.  This seems to happen with book adaptations.  Small details are changed for no apparent reason.  There are other examples of this in the film as well.  There are additions of new characters that do not exist in the book and the climax of the book has changed a little, probably to make it more dramatic.  The explanation of what “water for elephants” actually means is missing, and considering that is the title of the film, I thought that deserved a quick minute or two of explanatory dialogue.  The huge fans of the book may come away a little disappointed, but the arc of the stories of Jacob, Marlena, August, and Rosie are pretty much what they are in the book.  Hopefully, those that see the film and have not read the book will want to do so after seeing Water for Elephants.

I came away liking Water for Elephants.  It is a good movie, but not an excellent one.  It is lacking in passion that is present in the novel.  While I know that a movie adaptation will never be as good as the book, Water for Elephants could have been better.  The film had the actors, the score, and the production design to match the novel, but it was not taken far enough.  Hopefully, the fandom that surrounds the novel will be happy with end result of the movie.

I give Water for Elephants 3.5 ”Bottles of Jake” out of 5.

P.S. Watch out for the briefest role I have ever seen James Frain in.  He plays “Rosie’s Caretaker” for about two minutes.

by Sarah Ksiazek


About Sarah Ksiazek

Sarah is a Zookeeper extraordinaire who writes, edits, and is the resident trailer addict for Lost in Reviews. Do not underestimate her snobbery when it comes to trailers. She also owns/runs The Host Movie News which is a fan site for The Host movie adaptation.

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