Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Water for Elephants: A Review

In Film, Reviews on May 5, 2011 at 11:05 am

(August shows off the circus’s “salvation” to Marlena and Jacob)

By Eric Plaag

One of my favorite moments in all of literature occurs near the middle of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Mr. Stevens, the emotionally repressed English butler at Darlington Hall, and his co-worker Miss Kenton stand at one of the windows on the top floor of the house, watching Mr. Stevens’s ailing under-butler father reconsider the terrain upon which he had recently fallen while carrying a tea service. As the afternoon light fades, the pair quietly watches Stevens’s father retrace his steps again and again, then lose himself in thoughts of his growing frailty. Later, Miss Kenton writes Stevens and notes that his father’s searching had struck her as being “as though he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there.” This moment is the novel’s gut-kicker, the soul of the story, the linchpin that helps us understand all that stands in the way of the younger Stevens and Miss Kenton finding happiness in themselves and with one another.

So, when I finally went to see the film version of this book several years later, this scene was my test for whether director James Ivory could do the story justice. Sure enough, when the moment comes and “Mr. Stevens Senior” (Peter Vaughan) wanders about the courtyard, searching for the cause of his failure, Ivory choreographs things perfectly. The elder Stevens’s realization of his impending mortality and the understanding apparent on the faces of Miss Kenton and the younger Stevens as they watch him are utterly devastating. I left at the end of The Remains of the Day feeling as though the novel I loved—while tweaked and compressed in some places to suit the conventions and demands of cinema—was nevertheless treated fairly by the folks who’d bought the rights to put it on film.

Oh, how I wish I could say the same for Water for Elephants, the adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel directed by Francis Lawrence with a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese.

Then again, maybe I should not have expected so much, given that LaGravenese is responsible for such butcher jobs on former novels as Beloved (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), and even The Bridges of Madison County (1995), a novel so bad that I thought it could only get better when it came to film (it didn’t). In spite of this track record, though, LaGravenese does have a remarkably successful pedigree as a screenwriter, having written the original screenplay for The Fisher King (1991) on spec and successfully adapted such works as The Horse Whisperer (1998) and Unstrung Heroes (1995), the latter being another of my favorite film adaptations. How, then, do we account for this mess, which left me thinking instantly of such recent screenwriting train wrecks as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)?

In fairness to my readers, I have never read Gruen’s novel, but I have read much about it. I’d also been forewarned by my wife Teresa (a voracious reader if ever there was one, and a reader of Gruen’s tome), who expressed her hesitation about going to see the film primarily because she was certain that Hollywood would focus on the novel’s love story rather than who she believes is the real hero at the story’s center—Rosie the elephant. Armed with this knowledge, and keenly aware of Hollywood’s propensity for sucking the soul out of most good stories and making them about the base, lowest common denominator question of whether the guy gets the girl, I went to Water for Elephants with low expectations. It turns out that Teresa was right, and I should have lowered my sights even more.

Taken strictly on its own terms as a film, Water for Elephants is a disaster. One simple reason for this might be casting. Reese Witherspoon (at 35) is far too old to be playing the novel’s 20-year-old star attraction, Marlena, and this inconsistency creates odd chemistry problems in the film, independent of whatever disconnect there might be with the novel and its particulars. At times it seems not only unlikely but also a bit skeezy that the 23-year-old Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is so enamored of Marlena and so willing to risk their lives for her love, especially in the Benzini Brothers circus train environment of 1931. The story offers little, for example, in the way of motivation for their feelings, aside from their shared defense of Rosie from abuse and the traditional Hollywood assumption that all people have an overwhelming desire to screw each other simply because they look pretty and share something in common. Equally troubling is that August (Christoph Waltz), Marlena’s husband and the circus’s owner and ringleader, is played by Waltz as a knockoff version of nearly every other love triangle villain we’ve seen on screen for the past thirty years. Yes, he’s brutal to the animals and the people around him, as the novel’s August is, but gone are the complexities that make August in print so formidable and believable. Nowhere is there a reference to August’s paranoid schizophrenia—a centerpiece of the novel—nor is there a decent explanation for why Marlena has not left him before now (something the novel also offers). Instead, we are presented with a story that demands we believe that people with Marlena’s beauty and charisma and Jacob’s smarts and compassion would willingly subject themselves to an uncertain life on the rails with a man recognizable as a monster in the first thirty seconds we see him on film. Making otherwise interesting characters seem so foolish and self-indulgent does little to build our sympathy for them.

Differences between the print and film versions aside, though, Water for Elephants is also just ridiculously sloppy, to the point that we must question whether director Francis Lawrence (Constantine and I Am Legend) actually read the script before shooting. In the opening moments of the film, which uses a framing and flashback device to set up the opportunity for an older Jacob (Hal Holbrook) to tell his story, Jacob and his listener both make a direct reference to the fire that brought about the demise of the Benzini Brothers circus, but even if you hang around until after the credits have rolled, you will never see the fire. Murder by beating? Yes. Wild animal stampede? Sure. But no sign of a fire. Similarly, the condensing of a series of events from the novel into Marlena and Jacob’s unlikely and only temporary escape from August’s world of viciousness is equally nonsensical. Knowing August’s reputation for punishment and vindictiveness, why would they ever make haste to the hotel nearest the railroad and think they’d have time for nookie? While the couple began fooling around on screen, I had to sit on my hands to keep from screaming at them for being such idiots. Worst of all, Rosie the elephant’s ultimate vengeance is reduced to nothing more than a convenient plot device at show’s end, rather than standing out as the poignant, karmic resolution that it should be.

Water for Elephants is a movie I wanted to love, maybe because I’ve been wanting to read the book for so long. Or maybe it’s because the film’s producers so shamelessly used Nick Cave’s haunting soundtrack from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in Water’s trailers, thereby tugging on my heartstrings for an absolute masterpiece of a movie. Now, though, both experiences—the novel and the film—feel ruined, for this is certainly no masterpiece. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is pretty to look at, and all of the promotion surrounding this film promises a show to behold, but in the end, Water for Elephants is like the peep show whores in the Benzini Brothers sideshow tent—all tease and never worth what you paid for it.

Two out of five stars

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  1. I have to confess, I’ve never heard of this book (or movie). The movie sounds like a mess, but yeah, if it’s the guy who directed ‘I Am Legend,” your wife had a good instinct.

    That was another classic case of lit-to-screen rape. In the book, the protagonist (don’t remember his name) is the one who goes out and kills these zombie creatures, taking advantage of the times they can’t move… it is him THEY are afraid of (hence the title, ‘I Am Legend’… his cruelty becomes a legend amongst them…) The Hollywood movie was, of course, the classic zombie movie set-up, with none of the intrigue of the last ‘human’ character being the least humane of them all. I did not know of the book at the time I saw the movie and I left it thinking… that was ok, as far as these types of movies go… but what does the title even MEAN?

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