With every word that Sara Gruen allocated to the pages of Water for Elephants, she was asking the reader to care.
Through this novel – through its intricate detail, seemingly effortless style, sweeping scope, and intriguingly flawed characters – Gruen asks the reader to feel sadness, passion and empathy, and to make an investment of emotional energy as well as time.
I was more than willing to oblige.
Before reading Water for Elephants, I had heard many things. I had heard “best seller,” “five million copies” and “must read” – but these types of recommendations had long become customary. Water for Elephants was a novel that I would one day get around to, but I was in no rush.
When the film rolled through the cinemas, like every girl with a heartbeat, I was intrigued. I heard “Robert Pattinson” and “romantic” and “colourful” and “stunning” – and I thought, ‘I’ll get around to it.'
But then the time came. Water for Elephants was the next book on my ‘to-review’ list, and I started to read. And I wondered how I could have waited for so long.
I relished this book. Every word on every page felt like a gift.
Over the course of the first few chapters, I would lay down the book late at night and think about my grandfather. And suddenly I felt like I truly understood what he went through in the last few years of his life, and more than I every thought possible I valued his memory.
A few more chapters on, and I began to feel a deep sadness for the working animals and the suffering that they endured day after day so that a blissfully ignorant crowd could be entertained. Especially for the animals with enough intelligence to comprehend their own suffering.
Most of all I felt for Walter, the dwarf whose life was forever bound to the circus as he had no means of escape or of a brighter future, and who was stuck between the workers and the “rubes” (performers). He didn’t fit-in with either group and was forced to sleep with the horses.
This book is so rich and so full of colour and character it seemed a perfect fit for the big screen. Which brings me to the 2011 film, directed by Francis Lawrence. I have no criticisms. The adapters did a perfect job of translating Gruen’s cruel and magical world to the visual medium.
Although I have no criticisms, I do have some comparisons:
- The film is a much more polished than the novel. While all the important elements of the story are where they should be, the on-screen Big Top is much more bright and clean than its literary equivalent. The construction of the circus is like a rhythmic, well-orchestrated dance; the animal enclosures are clean; the ground is lush and green; and the dust and dirt and manure and grime is replaced by light and colour and music. Jacob even has the freedom to walk around the circus grounds and enjoy the splendour – and even begins to thank his lucky stars for sending him Benzini Bros – before he is then given the task of shoveling the manure.
- In the film, the elderly Jacob’s nursing home is across the road from the circus and he wanders over there by himself, manipulating his way into the show after insulting the ticket collector. In the book, he intentionally misses the bus back to the nursing home.
- In the film, Jacob didn’t live away at school at the time of his parent’s death. He left the family home that same morning, and farewelled his parents when he left to sit his final exam at Cornell. The exam was then interrupted by the terrible news. In the book, Jacob was attending a lecture at Cornell when he was called out and informed of his parent’s death, he then traveled back home to identify the bodies and due to his grief he later walked out on the final exam.
- Another slight alteration early on in the film is in regards to Jacob’s relationship with Catherine, the flirtatious girl in his class. In the book, it is implied that Catherine intentionally leads Jacob on and teases him and he is shy and inexperienced and unsure of how to deal with the attention. In the film, Pattinson’s character is much more confident and seems certain of his success in the bedroom.
- This added confidence is also shown in Jacob’s dealings with August – he cunningly manipulates the circus-owner into employing him with the statement that “I’m sure Ringling has its own vet,” whereas in the book he just stumbles his way through the first meeting (in the book it is with Uncle Al). Pattinson’s Jacob is also more capable of dealing with Marlena’s advances, and her looks and actions in the film are much more direct and encouraging.
- In the film, there is no Uncle Al. August, the head animal trainer of the book (and Marlena’s husband), also becomes the ringmaster and circus owner. The two brutal and remorseless characters are rolled into one ultimate evildoer, who even does most of his own dirty work.
- When Jacob first entered the Benzini Brothers train carriage Blackie ambushes him. In the film, his reception is a little more restrained. Following Camel’s advice, Blackie backs off – whereas in the book Jacob takes quite a pounding first.
- In the book, Jacob first sees Marlena with her ponies inside the animal enclosure, but he doesn’t actually see her perform for quite some time. When he tells Uncle Al that Marlena’s act is his favourite, he is taking a wild guess. In the film, Jacob – and the audience – is able to see Marlena’s act on his very first day, as well as the clowns, the dogs, the acrobats and the lions as well.
- Also through Jacob’s eyes, in the film the audience is also gifted a much broader tour of the Benzini Bros carriages than they are given in the book. In the book, Jacob is forced to jump precariously from carriage to carriage on the roof of the train – although he also does this in the film, Camel also walks him through of the performer’s sleeping quarters, which are stacked to the roof with narrow bunks.
- In the film, Jacob goes against August’s direct instructions by putting down Marlena’s horse – and Marlena is also present when he does it. It is the first time that the two really bond, and the first time that Marlena reveals how ruthless and cruel August really is. In the book, August is aware of what he is going to do but it is initially kept from Marlena to protect her feelings.
- In the book, it is initially not known who is stealing the lemonade – and the value of the stolen liquid is deducted from the wages of the workmen. In the film, Rosie only treats herself to lemonade once, and it is done openly in front of Jacob as a way of demonstrating her intelligence.
- In the book, Jacob is the “menagerie man” who cares for many of the animals, including the Orangutan. In the film, he is the ‘Bull Man’ only as Rosie takes up the majority of his time. The way that Jacob finds out that Rosie only understands Polish, and Rosie’s eventual circus act with Marlena, are also altered in the film.
- The tragic nature of Marlena’s back-story is ramped up in the film. In the book she is disowned by her parents because they did not approve of her unsuitable marriage to August – in the film, she is orphaned as a baby and the circus is the only home that she has ever known.
- In the book, Marlena does not make a deliberate, conscious decision to leave August for Jacob – she feels compelled to, and is driven into Jacob’s arms after August beats her. In the film, their romance is taken up a notch as she decides to leap from the train with him. The drama is also amped up when August’s men find Jacob and Marlena in their hotel room – in the book, they are not discovered and return to the circus separately the following day. In the book, August is never certain that they are having an affair. The stampede scene also has significant differences in the film – no doubt as a way of also making the impact more dramatic.
Actually, having thought about it, I do have one criticism… Throughout both the book and the film, I was waiting for the penny to drop. I was hoping to hear the full explanation of the symbolism of the “Water for Elephants” title. But it never came.
Sure, there are a few references. In the beginning of the novel, Jacob is certain that another resident of the nursing home is lying when he claims to have carried water for elephants at a circus. And when Jacob is brought to Uncle Al, he is taunted with the sarcastic "You want to carry water for elephants, I suppose?" at a time when the Benzini Bros did not have an elephant as part of their act.
It is explained that the circus train can only carry a limited amount of water on board, and only the most favoured employees have the luxury of a bucket of water to wash with. It is also implied that elephants can drink a significant amount – as evidenced by Rosie’s habit of stealing the lemonade, as well as her penchant for whiskey.
But, it is never explained why Jacob was so sure that his nursing home companion was lying. Why was he so certain that the man did not carry water for elephants at some other circus? What did Jacob’s experiences in the circus teach him that others would not ordinarily know?
If only I could answer these questions, I could put this book and film aside and feel perfectly content. So if you can answer them, let me know.
How does the film rate? 4.5/5
How does the film rate as an adaptation? 4.5/5
Total score: 9/10
Book or Big Screen? Book
Coming soon: A review of 'Warm Bodies' by Isaac Marion