Welcome to The Most Spectacular Show on Earth!
If you look closely, you’ll see there is something different about this big screen adaptation. Under this Big Top, you’ll find magic. Unlike most movies today, Water for Elephants is classic storytelling at it’s best. Actions, decisions, consequences, words; it’s about following these wonderful characters in a timeless journey of love, loss, and finding a place in this world where you truly belong.
The Story: Set in 1930’s America, Water for Elephants centers around a young Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson). This Cornell educated veterinary student seems to be set in life, but suddenly loses everything after his parents die in a tragic car crash. With no money, no home, Jacob hops aboard the nearest train and finds more than he bargained for. He finds The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a struggling second-rate one ring circus. When put in charge of the shows menagerie, Jacob finds himself immediately enchanted by the shows star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and her amazing equestrian act. The only problem is, she is married to August (Christoph Waltz), the charming but unstable ringmaster and owner of the troubled depression era circus. As Jacob’s journey with the show continues, August purchases Rosie – the liquor loving elephant who is seemingly incapable of following a single command; that is, until Jacob discovers the secret to make Rosie perform. Jacob learns that there is more to this circus than beauty and glitz, but what lies beneath the tent floor is violent and malicious. Yet, the true lesson is looking beyond that and finding love amongst the thorns.
The Characters & their Actors: In his finest performance to date, Robert Pattinson portrays Jacob as a charming, smiling, kind-hearted caretaker to the circus’ menagerie. Pattinson brings the Jacob we all loved in the book to life, giving us a hero we can connect with and root for. The chemistry between Jacob and his elephant friend and scene-stealer Rosie (Tai the Elephant) is undeniable. In fact, I found myself captivated with their interactions, even more than Jacob and the rest of the circus gang [A particular scene between Jacob, Rosie, and a jug of pink lemonade comes to mind].
Yet, the character relationship between Jacob and August (Waltz) is not to be overlooked. Christoph Waltz gives us another great performance as a tough, violent, selfish character who will do anything when it comes to his circus. However, you are able to sense that small ounce of humanity – of reason – Waltz brings to this character. He plays off Pattinson’s Jacob with ease. These actors take their polar opposite role’s and form a relationship we can believe.
Fans of the book will remember old-time favorites like Kinko/Walter (Mark Povinelli) and Camel (Jim Norton) to have more of presence in the story. Yet, though their roles have diminished in the adaptation, their portrayals are strong enough to make their mark on the narrative.
The inevitable weakest link in the chain, was unfortunately Reese Witherspoon and her over worked portrayal of Marlena. Her presentation gave the audience a flighty, bored wife that lacked any real substance, even amongst the serious horrific events that her characters life had endured. In turn, it seemed that the relationship that was created with Jacob resembled a friendship, rather than a forbidden love affair.
From Page to Screen: Die-hard fans of the novel will be quite surprised to discover that the biggest and most notable difference between the film and the novel actually enhances the story. The fusion of August with the character Uncle Al (in the novel) gave the film version of August more depth – It raised his stakes in story. You never miss the tyrant Uncle Al, because Waltz portrays the two well combined characters, you almost forget there was an Uncle Al to begin with. The film brought these somewhat similar characters together, to create one nasty well-developed personality.
The other most notable difference, is older Jacob’s (Hal Holbrook) lack of story line. The films only scenes that represent older Jacob is when he arrives at the “new and improved” circus and begins to tell his story of his time with The Benzini Brothers. The large part of the original novel dedicated to older Jacob’s detestation of his nursing home and present life is completely abolished. However, through the use of dialogue we still understand Jacob’s reasoning to run away with the circus. His motivations behind his actions are not lost on the audience, even with his lack of narrative.
Final thoughts: Water for Elephants is one of the few novel to film adaptations I’ve seen that actually worked. Despite the differences between the two, the characters stories, persona’s, and their motivations all remained intact. The film only enhanced my love for the story and the characters. In the end, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful; with a realism and grittiness that make it seem like a classic old Hollywood film. Water for Elephants is everything I want out a film – romance, drama, action, and a healthy dose of humor. Without a doubt, I’ll be in my local cinema again watching Rosie and her friends at the circus.
Movie Rating: A-
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Have you seen Water for Elephants? What did you think of the movie? Have you read the novel? Do you think the movie adaptation did justice to the novel? What was your favorite scene? Favorite character? Will you see it in the theatre again? Tell me in the comments!