Water for Elephants is not a “Horror movie.” It is, however a movie steeped in symbolism. Embroiled within the sadistic, surrealistic world of the Benzini Brothers Circus, the emotional and physical abuses that both humans and animals are forced to endure are horrific.
Without question, Hollywood tends to destroy the integrity of award-winning novels when converting them to film. So, when the news broke that my all-time favorite book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, was being adapted into a movie, I was both elated and apprehensive. Understandably, condensing the 350 page novel into a 122 minute film was a necessary evil. Due to time-constraints, pivotal storylines were excluded (the elderly Jacob’s back story), and minor plot changes were made (morphing the characters of horse director and animal superintendant August, and circus owner/ringmaster Uncle Al, being the most significant).
Although this historical romance is set during the Great Depression; the movie begins with a shot of the main character, Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), in his twilight years; standing dazed and confused in the parking lot of a 21st century traveling circus. Charlie (Paul Schneider), the circus manager, takes pity on the old man. Offering him refuge in his office; Charlie soon discovers that, Jacob, in his youth, bore witness to one of the major catastrophes of circus history.
As the old man begins to weave his tale, the audience is transported to 1931. A cocksure, youthful Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is taking his final examine at the prestigious Cornwall University, in Ithaca, New York; within hours of earning his degree in veterinary medicine. Upon opening his examine book, the door opens to his classroom: immediately tragedy strikes.
Following a string of devastating circumstances, Jacob is left monetarily and emotionally a broken-man. With his hopes and dreams shattered, he abandons his once perfect life. In the dead of night, Jacob hops a moving train to an unknown destination. Within moments of setting off on his new adventure, he becomes embroiled within the sadistic, surrealistic world of the Benzini Brothers Circus. To pay off his debt for “riding the rails” of the circus boxcar, uninvited, Jacob is eventually hired as the Benzini Brothers Circus’ resident veterinarian … succumbing to the realization that his past will always be a part of his future.
During his short stint employed as the keeper of the menagerie’s well-being, Jacob’s world is turned upside-down. As he plunges deeper into the immorality of his new environment, Jacob does his best to cling to the values that his Polish immigrant parents instilled in him. Throughout the movie, Jacob’s inner-struggle between just-and-unjust causes his moral compass to constantly wobble from its true north.
Along his forced journey into manhood, Jacob becomes immersed in the pleasures and repulsions of circus life. His initial meeting with August (Christoph Waltz), the paranoid schizophrenic owner and ringmaster of the Benzini Brothers Circus, ends in Jacob’s first near death encounter. Yet, it is Jacob’s attraction to August’s beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and the scene stealing Rosie (Tai) the elephant, that seals the young man’s fate … trapping Jacob in a world that he detests for its cruelty, yet is bound to by unconditional love.
The lead actors in “Water for Elephants” do a remarkable job of breathing life into their characters. Rob Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Waltz’s love triangle was wrought with tension. Plus, the chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon brought an undeniable reality to the lovers forbidden desire for one another. However, it was the bond between man and pachyderm that stole the movie. Both Rob Pattinson, and his elephant co-star Tai, displayed a gentle, child-like wonder to each other. The scenes they shared overflowed with on-screen magic.
Water for Elephants is a novel written for adults; sexuality among consenting adults is a common theme throughout the novel; as well as physical and mental abuse to both humans and animals. The movie plays down the sexual aspects of the book, and all explicit raunchy scenes were removed, replaced by sensuality and implied speculation.
Although the cruelty to humans and animals remain, most of it has been either watered-down, or hidden behind closed doors. In the novel, cruelty fueled and intensified the plot; in the movie it propels the love story. Several plot twists, and minor characters were also condensed, causing the movie version of Water for Elephants to, at times, feel rushed. However, it is evident that the changes to the novel’s plot, by screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese and director Francis Lawrence, were made with diligence and respect to the original material.
Besides the perfect casting, the film was beautifully costumed and filmed. Similar to the research that author Sara Gruen incorporated into her novel; strict detail was given to recreating the gritty underworld of circus life during the depression era.
Water for Elephants, does not duplicate the novel. Yet, it stays true to the fundamental elements of the storyline. The costumes and cinematography are a feast to the eyes, and Oscar-worthy performances were given by Rob Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, and yes, even Tai the elephant.
If you have read Water for Elephants, you will love the movie. If you haven’t read the novel, I highly suggest that you view the movie and read the book: both are indulgent worthy.
5 out of 5 stars Rated PG-13 for moments of actual and implied violence, and mild sexual content
Running Time: 122 minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay By: Richard LaGravenes (adapted from the novel by Sara Gruen)