D: Francis Lawrence. DP: Rodrigo Prieto. W: Richard LaGravenese. Starring: Reese Witherspoon/Robert Pattinson/Christoph Waltz/Jim Norton/Hal Holbrook/Mark Povinelli/Paul Schneider/Richard Brake/Scott MacDonald. (NOTE: Base on Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel of the same name.)
Book adaptations have lit theaters around the world for nearly a century. Novels such as Dracula and Frankenstein have had to stand the test of time after so many reincarnations and interpretations. Now, in modern movie making times, buying film rights to successful novels (sometimes even before they’re published) is whole other game entirely. With the newest addition to this list being 20th Century Fox’s Water for Elephants by Canadian author Sara Gruen.
Besides boasting three major league names, Water for Elephants had the added marketability of being about a subject matter so inherently dependent on the visual. The film chronicles the life of Jacob Jankowski, played by Twilight heart throb Robert Pattinson. In a flashback that takes the entire film, Pattinson loses his parents, drops out of veterinary school at Cornell, hops on a train, and joins the circus. Although set in the depression, the visual menagerie of the film allows for a greater contrast between the circus’ lifestyle and the grueling conditions of the rest of the country. Pattinson’s character personifies this in his interactions with circus owner, August (Waltz) and his wife/performer Marlena (Witherspoon). Pattinson must don suits and tails for these dinners while he sleeps with the horses and takes care of animals.
However, this contrast is not taken to the next level by Pattinson. At times he seems uncomfortable on screen, waiting for his lines with little register of thought in his head while others are acting. This is even more obvious in scenes with Waltz who adds immense color to Auguste, hiding his short comings in his charm. Waltz even makes Witherspoon look one-dimensional at moments as her Marlena is given less volition and spunk in the script than in the novel. Yet Witherspoon still wins moments over and helps quicken the pace of the film, which begins to drag in the third act. Ultimately, the real winner is Rosie the elephant as she steals moments and whole scenes away from her co-stars.
Sadly though, one of the most distinct story elements of Gruen’s novel is missing in the film. The novel is structured to swing back and forth between Jacob (Pattinson’s) young days on the road with the circus and his time as a elderly man in a nursing home. Gruen takes her time giving readers her character’s perspective on losing your loved one, being institutionally taken care of, and feeling that physically you are older than you are mentally. This perspective made the younger chapters full of love, drama, and circus life all the more rich and precious. Unfortunately, the film is structured (much to the Hollywood standard) where older Jacob bookends the film with literally two or three scenes. Holbrook, who plays older Jacob, doesn’t even get to provide the (at times laborious) voice over to the film. We should have at least gotten that much.
Water for Elephants is not a total loss, just merely lacks the same magic and spark of the book. But for those audience memebers who are sitting down to a new story, maybe they won’t be as disappointed. Or maybe they will notice all the same Hollywood tropes others have and simply remind people that, “yes, but wasn’t it beautifully shot?”