Water for Elephants is an unexpectedly successful adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel that, contrary to what its trailers would tell us, manages to not fall into the Hollywood trap of focusing solely upon a love triangle that just happens to exist within an otherwise captivating and fairly original story. Even stranger in regard to this positive experience is that the film was directed by (get ready for this) Francis Lawrence (Constantine; I Am Legend), who has previously shown a great capacity for visual flair at the ultimate expense of story. Here, the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese trims the unnecessary moments out of the book so that Lawrence is then free to lavish his trademark flourishes without dragging the entire production into oblivion. It’s a wonderful partnership that must be replicated in future films. In fact, it is to the credit of LaGravenese’s sharply focused script and Lawrence’s attention to detail that the movie’s characters (and the primary three are remarkably well developed) are allowed to convincingly reveal the motivations behind their actions within the swirling chaos that was life in the Great Depression. The circus setting, of course, provides a temporary respite from the threats that exist when one doesn’t live in a moving caravan, but there are tradeoffs to the lifestyle, as Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) soon realizes.
The film opens with a very brief introduction by Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook, playing the same sort of role that Gloria Stuart did for Titanic), who begins to tell the tale of why he wants to “come home” to the circus. Then, we meet up with young Jacob while his sheltered life as a Cornell veterinary student comes to a screeching halt when his Polish immigrant parents are killed in an off-screen car accident. Since his parents remortgaged the family home to pay for their son’s education, Jacob is left destitute and decides, on a whim, to hop onto a freight train. Upon awakening the next morning, he discovers that he’s hitched a ride with the Benzini Brothers Circus and quickly falls in as the production’s veterinarian. Naturally, he takes notice of the show’s star performer, Marlena Rosenbluth (Reese Witherspoon), and is taken under the wing of her husband, August (Christoph Waltz), whose character has been slightly expanded from the book, so that he’s not only the animal trainer but also the man-in-charge, which presents all sorts of financial impetus for his character’s inevitable rages.
By condensing certain aspects of the story from the book version, the screenplay removes the possibility of overpowering a movie that’s already rather epic both in its grandeur and scope. When dealing in particular with the character of August, it’s no mistake that this story churns against backdrop of the Great Depression with the story picking up in 1931 at the height of falling circuses. As a matter of course, August informs Jacob that he runs his circus as a “sovereign nation” subject only to his own rule and “where everything is an illusion.” However, as hard as August tries to insulate himself and his company from real-world troubles, he also fails magnificently. By adding the fallout from August’s financial realities into the mix, the film does not place August’s character traits solely under the realm of a mental disorder (as in the book) but also situates him as a manifestation of what some men will do in the most desperate of times. It must be noted, however, that August’s behavior is never excused by any means, but the movie provides a rather engrossing look at an even more complicated character than the book dares to suggest.
Those with a delicate stomach should realize that the movie does not omit the book’s instances of cruelty (both against animals and humans) that persist throughout August’s reign of terror. Everything is beautiful on the outside when the circus tents go pop, but the horrible ugliness of life with the Benzini Brothers traveling circus always simmers under the shimmering surface. In addition, the dynamic between the story’s three main characters is an interesting one to boot. When each of them interacts with just one of the others, it is in an entirely different manner than with the absent party or when all three are present together. Again, this movie is not the stuff of high art, but it’s a more than serviceable adaptation of this particular novel, and readers will enjoy the give and take going on between the major players. Unfortunately, the roustabout characters are a bit more buffoonish, but a very nice turn comes from Mark Povinelli in the role of Walter, a.k.a., “Kinko.”
Overall, most of the performers within Water for Elephants fare better than expected. Reese Witherspoon finally gets back to creating some movie magic in a way that she hasn’t pulled off since long before her Oscar days. Her portrayal of Marlena is at times wounded and at times calculating, and Witherspoon manages to infuse the character with more ambiguity than her literary counterpart. It is not a perfect performance by any means but reminds us that Witherspoon is still capable of pulling off something with more dimension than one of her stock romcom characters. While Robert Pattinson probably won’t entirely shed his Edward Cullen reputation in the role of Jacob, he’s taken a step in the correct direction here as well. Pattinson’s not a magnificent actor, and it’s doubtful that he will ever even be considered a good one, but once he moves past his character’s awkward beginnings, he largely holds his own during the latter half of the movie. Or at least he does so during scenes when he’s up against Witherspoon or any of the film’s minor players. Against Waltz, poor Pattinson just doesn’t have a chance, nor does anyone else. Waltz is just that good, and while the movie reveals less about August’s mental condition than does the book, his rages are no less terrifying; and indeed, he is a fully horrifying man, but Waltz does something entirely magical by refusing to reduce the character to a cartoon figure, which would have happened at the hands of nearly any other actor. Instead, Waltz reaches inward to give us moments when we truly feel something resembling pity for August even though we realize that it’s just a moment of time before he loses his shit again and takes it out any number of poor, innocent creatures.
In the end, anyone who enjoyed Gruen’s novel will also adore this movie as well. It not only preserves the book’s spirit but brings these multi-faceted characters to life with added qualities. The movie also fully realizes the intensity of the book’s finale, although I found it impossible to tell exactly how much (if any) of that scene was enhanced by CGI. My guess would be “a little bit,” but honestly, the filmmakers might have fooled me entirely in that regard, which is to their credit because being unable to tell whether something is CGI or not is something that most movies cannot manage; that is to say that everything looks authentic in Water for Elephants, and at least the illusion of the movie itself doesn’t come crashing down before the end credits.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.