Life and 100 Films – Charlie’s Film Review of Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants Movie PosterWater For Elephants is a romantic drama based on Sara Gruen’s novel of the same name.  The novel secured a place on the New York Times Best Seller List for 12 weeks back in 2006.  The paperback version of the novel attained the number one spot in early 2007.  With such amazing success, it was only a matter of time before a film was created based on this work.  The film generated a lot of buzz leading up to its theatrical release back on April 22, 2011.  It was a film that I had been eagerly awaiting, and I can still remember the moment I saw the first trailer.  I thought it looked stunning, and I remember thinking that this would really be a piece of work that would enjoyable for the masses.

Featuring an all-star cast including Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz, the feature film springs to life from the pages of the novel.  Christoph Waltz is a genius in my mind, and he was coming off of a performance of a lifetime that earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Inglourious Basterds when he began Water For Elephants.  I know most of you lady viewers probably love Rob Pattinson for his portrayal of Edward Cullen in the Twilight saga, but this part showed everyone that he is a legitimate actor with range.  Finally, we are privileged to view the always beautiful Academy Award winning Reese Witherspoon, who never seems to amaze me with her acting chops by treating us to countless different roles year after year.

The film starts at the closing of a circus, where it seems an elderly man was mistakenly left behind from the nursing home group that he visited with.  The owner of the circus takes him into his trailer to find out how to get him back to the home when he reveals that he used to work in the circus and was present during one of the most infamous circus disasters ever.  He reveals himself to be named Jacob and tells his story about his time as the veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers Circus.

As Jacob begins to tell his story, we flash back to the time of The Great Depression, and we see a 23-year-old Jacob (Robert Pattinson) as a Cornell veterinary medicine student on the verge of a promising vet career, following in his father’s shoes.  Unfortunately, during his final exam he discovers that his parents were killed in a car crash.  His father, having done a large portion of his vet business in kind instead of actual cash, has left huge debts, leading the bank to foreclose on Jacob’s home.  Feeling there is no point in returning to school, and having no home to go home to, Jacob jumps onto a passing train, which just so happens to be the Benzini Brothers Circus train.  He meets Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who performs a Liberty Horse routine, as well as August (Christoph Waltz), the circus owner, head animal trainer, and Marlena’s husband.  Jacob reveals his background in veterinary science and tells August that he has noticed a problem with Silver, the star horse in the show.  August agrees to hire Jacob as a vet for the circus animals after he tells August that Silver is sick and will soon be unable to walk, much less perform.  Now an official member of the circus, Jacob begins to travel with the company, and he begins to take an interest in Marlena as they are brought together while he works on her horses.  He plays a dangerous game, however, as August is not as kind nor as aloof as he appears.  What will become of Jacob?

I will stop there as that is the major set up for the rest of the story, and you can probably guess where this is leading as Resse’s character is indeed Robert’s character’s love interest.  Did I forget to mention that Christoph’s character is a major ass, because that fact is pivotal.  Also, if you are confused about why I haven’t talked about elephants yet, don’t worry.  If you are completely unfamiliar with the story, the title will make PERFECT sense to you while you are watching the film from here on out.

I highly suggest you check this film out, at the very least it’s something that anyone can enjoy.  If you are a fan of the book (Kim’s review is here), you will definitely enjoy this interpretation, as it stays quite close to the original work.  There are a few scenes that may make a few people uncomfortable because of its subject matter, but it is rated PG-13, so things don’t get too harsh.  All-in-all, this is an underrated flick, and if you go into it with no expectations, I think you are going to be pleasantly surprised after the viewing!!!

4 out of 5 Stars

Water For Elephants (2010)
20th Century Fox
PG-13, 120 Minutes

#93 A Review of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for ElephantsHave you ever read a book that made you question your memories?  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen did just that for me in opening my eyes to the dark side of circus life.  What I remembered as a bright, engaging performance as a kid could be the tough life that is illustrated in this book.  Although today our society and protection laws today are much different than they were during the Great Depression, it is still scary that these conditions did exist back then.

This story is told via the memories of Jake Jankowski, a nursing home resident that is in his early 90’s, who although old and cantankerous, has a perfectly clear memory of the younger years of his life, most of which occurred during the Great Depression.  He begins his tale as a 23-year-old, studying at Cornell University to become a veterinarian, when he learns that both of his parents were killed in a car accident.  Furthermore, his father saved what little money he had and mortgaged his home to send Jake to school, making the loss even more devastating and causing Jake to sink into a depression.  He runs away, and climbs aboard a train, which happens to be a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  Eventually hired to take care of the circus animals due to his veterinary training, Jake begins to work for the circus, developing a tentative relationship with August, the head trainer, and his wife Marlena.  August is known as a brutal and abusive husband and he often abuses the animals, especially Rosie the elephant.  Jake eventually falls in love with Marlena against his better judgement, and sleeps with her once she runs away from August.  Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, discovers this and issues Jake an ultimatum: get August and Marlena back together, or else many of Jake’s friends in the circus will be thrown off the moving circus train (this is known as “red-lighting”).  Will Jake give in to this demand, knowing that sending Marlena back to August will certainly put her in harms way?  Will he be able to survive now that Uncle Al and August know of his transgression?

It is absolutely no wonder how this book made it on to the New York Times bestseller list.  Vivacious characters, rich settings, and one hell of a tumultuous love affair, and you have the perfect makings for a thrilling read.  Gruen is a gifted story-teller; the ability to turn detailed research into a breathtaking reading experience is not often found, but Gruen was able to do this extremely well.  In real life, the circus is a wondrous, larger than life experience, and it’s no small feat that Gruen is able to translate those whimsical feelings to the page.  Not only do you get to see the “fun” side of the circus, but you’re given a front row seat to the grueling behind-the-scenes lives of the workers and performers.  It’s amazing how horrible the conditions were, and how cruel some owners were not only to those in the show, but to the animals! As an animal lover there were parts of this book that absolutely killed me to read.  I had to put it down, walk away, and take a breather at certain parts.  (I find that I lose my patience with animal abuses, and need to step back and regroup before continuing).

Overall, Gruen’s story was gripping and unique.  Her intense research, combined with an interesting topic and compelling story made this book a delight to read and an easy adaptation to a feature film (which was also excellently done!)  If you’re looking for something that will really pull you in and take you to a different time, Water for Elephants is your best bet.

5 out of 5 Stars

This is my twenty-second completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Algonquin Books (2007)
Paperback  350 pages
ISBN: 9781565125605