Adapting a book into a motion picture is an audacious task. While watching a movie, fans often see a story unfold for the first time before their eyes. With an adaptation, many readers who have read the book and formed their own impressions about the images and meat of the book need to be appeased with the film version. It’s almost an impossible undertaking.
As one who read Sara Gruen’s exciting Water for Elephants, I was among those who waited impatiently for the movie version. While I enjoyed much of the film, I left the theater puzzled – and reconsidering for days – why it didn’t excite me.
Robert Pattinson & Rosie
The story of Jacob, a young college student in the 1930s who must drop out of his veterinarian degree program due to the tragic death of his parents – and the demise of any financial support – changes little in the film adaptation. My biggest disappointment here involves the casting of Robert Pattinson (Twilight) as Jacob.
Left alone, jobless and penniless, Jacob jumps a train heading out of town only to find out he’s landed on one of the train cars belonging to the Benzini Brothers circus. Normally, train jumpers are dealt with harshly by circus employees, but someone takes a liking to Jacob and when circus owner and boss August (Christoph Waltz) is told he’s an animal vet – although not quite true – he’s allowed to stay on.
Robert Patterson & Reese Witherspoon
Jacob’s first chores are ones no wants to do; but when he becomes memorized watching circus performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) – and wife of August – perform on some horses, he notices one of the horses is injured. His quick, but tough prognosis of the injury impresses Marlena. The contact they share during setting up the circus from town to town soon ignites into an affair.
Marlena, who became August’s wife out of necessity, knows she must be aware of his discovery. Because of her husband’s drinking problem and split personality that can erupt into dangerous outbursts with physical ramification, Marlena is guarded.
Christoph Waltz & Reese Witherspoon
Witherspoon is beautiful in Elephants. She embodies the sexuality and charms of 30s and 40s bombshells such as Virginia Mayo, Jean Harlow and Rita Hayworth. But no chemistry exists between her and Pattinson. In fact, I found many of Witherspoon’s scenes with Waltz when they are being romantic more believable than those with Patterson. Jacob is quick thinking and pro-active and Patterson, who works well in the Twilight series, seemed to laid-back for this man who is always under fire. This left me unable to buy into their affair, which would produce significant dangers for both of them and some of the circus folks as well. While reading the book, I had no problem buying into this relationship.
Waltz emerges as the standout performer in this film. He tackles this role with a mirror image of the role that earned him an Oscar in Inglourious Basterds. August can be a charming man both with his crew and wife, but without a moment’s notice he can turn into a sadistic psycho. Waltz is the one who steers the movie, aided by a great cast portraying the circus crew plus the talented Hal Holbrook who bookends the opening and closing of the film as an older Jacob retelling his life story.
Christoph Waltz & circus crew
I also wanted more elements of the circus life in the film. Scenes with Witherspoon and the elephant Rosie are great, and Witherspoon went to great lengths to study her role and do most of her own stunts. Still, there were too few scenes of the animals that fuel the circus performances and that might have drawn an audience deeper into the story.
There are no complaints about the art decoration of Jack Fisk (Oscar nominated for There Will Be Blood) or cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Biutful, Brokeback Mountain). Every scene on the train, in the small towns and inside the big tent, look and feel authentic. I was easily transported to this era and a world we seldom see. The combination of excellent work by these two professionals in Water For Elephants as well as costume designer Jacqueline West, should entertain most mainstream audiences. Note: no animals were harmed in the filming of this movie.
Photo credits: David James / Twentieth Century Fox