“Water for Elephants,” based on Sara Gruen’s poignant New York Times Bestseller, is a film with definite potential but limited plot execution.
Set in the early Depression era, the movie tells the story of a traveling circus amid a whirlwind of drama, violence and forbidden romance. Robert Pattinson stars as veterinarian Jacob, who drops out of school and jumps the train of a traveling circus. Jacob soon becomes locked in a taboo romance with circus performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) even though she is married to circus owner August (Christoph Waltz).
The film is told from both the perspective of young Jacob at the circus and old Jacob in a nursing home. Pattinson’s performance is endearing and much more convincing than his role in the cult-classic “Twilight,” but his character lacks the passion found in the novel and often falls flat on screen beyond his striking good looks. But, his older counterpart, played by Hal Holbrook, wins over the audience with his impassioned speeches and elderly charm.
Witherspoon makes a decent leading lady and looks stunning in the role but seems old next to Pattinson’s character in their uninspiring romance. Waltz makes up for the lack of spice, easily channeling the violence and volatility of his character. The grittiest scenes, such as when August assaults the people and creatures around him, are sickening.
It is unfortunate the acting is not more engaging overall, as the movie is beautifully filmed, with scenes of sweeping hillsides and wide skies.
The film does a solid job of following the same story line as the novel, but scenes were rushed. Jacob transitions from an outcast to one of the gang before the audience even knows it, and his romance with Marlena is just as spontaneous.
It is disappointing to see the meticulous development of the characters in Gruen’s novel not play out on screen. Many important book characters were hardly featured, such as Barbara, the exotic dancer, and Camel, the elderly friend of Jacob who falls ill.
One change to the plot that benefits the story line is the combination of August’s character with the character of Uncle Al from the novel. In the book, August is strictly in charge of overseeing the animals, and Al owns the circus. The movie combines the two characters into one major villain.
The romance between Jacob and Marlena is missing the unbridled passion. The characters bond over their love for Rosie the elephant more than for one another.
That being said, Rosie is the most endearing character in the film, showing greater compassion and range of emotion than many of the human characters. August purchases Rosie as the circus’s new main attraction in order to boost sales and places her under Jacob’s care. She quickly becomes the hero of the film.
Despite its plot failings, “Water for Elephants” has the makings of a crowd pleaser. Big-name actors star in the film, and the movie is aesthetically pleasing. But, the rushed plot line leaves audiences missing out on vital information from the book. It may not be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” but it is an enjoyable film.
“Water for Elephants” was written by Richard LaGravenese and directed by Francis Lawrence. It was adapted from the novel by Sara Gruen.