Font to Film: "Water for Elephants"

Originally a draft created as part of National Novel Writing Month, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants was published in 2006, and has since been quite well-received. The novel’s setting is a traveling circus during the Great Depression, and it is essentially a love story steeped in rich historical detail. Gruen manages to make the Depression a significant presence in the novel, more a character in its own right than a mere backdrop. As a result the reader truly gets a sense of the oppressive, constant dread driving the actions of the working men and women of the period, and from the start we see how drastically economic forces can shape a person’s destiny.

The story is told in flashback by Jacob Jankowski, presently 93 years old and living a life all but estranged from a family that no longer has much time for him. He spends his empty, unfulfilling days in a nursing home, in danger of never having anything to look forward to again—until the circus comes to town. Its presence invigorates Jacob, and he begins to recount his life as a young man who, waylaid by tragedy, took his chances hopping a circus train during one of the darkest periods of American history.

Gruen uses Jacob’s experiences to showcase an incredible juxtaposition of the wondrous spectacle put on by the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth and the often horrifying circumstances in which the laborers and performers—both human and animal—live. The Depression has fostered desperation and madness, encouraging opportunists who have managed to succeed only on the backs of those less fortunate, exploiting them when possible and discarding them otherwise. In the midst of all this, Jacob finds beauty—in the circus, the menagerie, and the animal trainer’s wife, Marlena. The development of this love triangle is the meat of the plot; at its heart,Water for Elephants is a very conventional—almost to the point of being predictable—romance that is elevated primarily by the care and detail put into its setting.

One might imagine that such a vibrant and compelling world would make the novel ripe for adaptation to film. However, the screen version of Water for Elephants—released in 2011—received mixed reviews. Of chief concern to many was the fact that Jacob and Marlena, played by Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, had little chemistry on screen. This led to their romance having a very told-not-shown feel, particularly when viewed alongside the passionate performance given by Christoph Waltz, who plays Marlena’s husband. Unfortunately, the film plays up the love triangle at the expense of many of the supporting elements that made the book feel unique. What results is a relatively shallow and not-entirely-convincing love story. Despite this shortcoming, the film does a fair job of visually representing the shoddy grandeur of the Most Spectacular Show on Earth; as is true with the novel, the richness of the setting ends up being the film’s saving grace.

Water for Elephants is available to borrow at E.P. Foster Library in both book and audiobook form. The film is also available through the library; if it is not on the shelf at your local branch, you can request for it to be delivered to the branch of your choosing. In addition, you can borrow a digital copy of the novel from the Ventura County Library through OverDrive. OverDrive eBooks are available to download to a wide variety of devices, and will automatically be returned at the conclusion of your loan period. If you need assistance with setting up your device and account to borrow eBooks, check out the OverDrive help page, which links to a number of useful, device-specific articles and videos, or stop by the library.

 

Brought to life by Ronald Martin.