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Water For Elephants

by Leonard Maltin
April 22, 2011 4:10 AM
9 Comments
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movie review


When people talk about a book with affection and even passion, the way they have Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel Water for Elephants, I always hope (against hope) that a screen adaptation can find some way to replicate those feelings. But let’s face it: even good translations of popular books (from The Bridges of Madison County to The Kite Runner) tend to fall short, especially in the eyes of those fervent readers, because films rarely provide the same intensely personal experience that reading a novel does.

Water for Elephants isn’t bad, not by a longshot. It’s intelligent, as you would expect from screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (whose credits include The Fisher King and The Horse Whisperer), beautifully crafted and well-cast, but it lacks emotional depth. Too many times I was told something I should have felt. When it was over, I took nothing away with me, except admiration for—

—an exceptionally gentle, well-trained elephant named Tai who plays the part of Rosie.

Robert Pattinson acquits himself quite nicely as the son of Polish immigrants who, in the face of a family tragedy, walks away from final exams at Cornell University, where he’s studying to become a veterinarian, and hits the road. It’s 1931, and the Depression is taking a bitter toll on America. By sheer chance, the railroad car he hops onto is carrying roustabouts for a traveling circus, and a kind man offers to get him a job the next morning. When Pattison sees the show’s beautiful equestrian star (Reese Witherspoon) he is immediately smitten, in spite of warnings that her husband, the struggling circus’ autocratic owner (Christoph Waltz), is highly possessive—and cruel. The new vet does his best to fit in, and fight his natural feelings toward the woman he covets.

At its best, Water for Elephants evokes both its period and the unique atmosphere of circus life, especially at a time when both its audiences and participants were in desperate need of escape from reality. Jack Fisk’s production design, Jacqueline West’s costumes, and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography all contribute to an exceptionally handsome film. It’s easy, and inviting, to lose yourself in this world, as I did at first. But as the story is reduced to a series of inevitabilities, the movie weakens. It isn’t the fault of the actors, or even director Francis Lawrence, I suspect: it’s the peril of having to distill expressive, leisurely writing to a series of story points.

Water for Elephants still has much to recommend, including its beautiful production, attractive stars, and romantic outlook (in spite of the harsh realities that intrude). I was swept up in it for quite a while, but a film of this kind ought to leave you with an afterglow. That’s what I was wanting, and hoping for, so I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed.

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9 Comments

  • Ramon Flesvig | May 6, 2011 6:45 AMReply

    I was absolutely dumbfounded at Maltin´s disappointment. I, for one, thought it was a wonderful movie -- diserving of at least 3 and a half stars. I am not a wide-eyed teenager drooling over Pattinson, but a 72 year old man who was moved to tears by the emotions the film brought forth. I did not read the book and I do not think you have to in order to enjoy a good film. I certainly want to see it again so that I can enjoy it without worrying what is going to happen to the characters. Reese Witherspoon gets better with every movie. (Who cares if the Empire State Building was shown or not?)

  • Dick May | April 29, 2011 2:56 AMReply

    The Empire State Building was built in 1931. According to Wikipedia, it was first used as a broadcast location by RCA in December of that year.
    Even if it wasn't occupied for business until 1934, it certainly was prominent in the N.Y. skyline in 1931.

  • Ocher | April 26, 2011 5:12 AMReply

    This movie was an absolutely amazing adaptation of the book, which was to me, mesmerizing. Everything, every character, the feel of the era, was captured beautifully. For those who criticize Pattinson's performance, I can only say he WAS Jacob and did an amazing job acting the part. I saw no one else with real tears...this guy has it and those who think otherwise - I believe are jealous. Shame on you so-called professional critics. Everything about this movie from acting to story lines, screenplay to compelling cinematography was superb. It swept me away just like the book did. The movie captured everything, my heart included. Critics- jump off a cliff.

  • Becca | April 25, 2011 11:25 AMReply

    I loved the book and also loved this movie. Book adaptations are never as good as the movie, but this came close. I'm sure it wasn't easy condensing WFE down to 2 hours. I loved the performances of the entire cast. I only wish that it had captured more of the grittiness, and that Hal Holbrook's part had been bigger. He brought me to tears the short time he was on.

  • Jeffrey | April 25, 2011 7:42 AMReply

    Maltin is correct. This film should have been better.

  • MH | April 23, 2011 8:38 AMReply

    Lots of nice pictures, tableaus in fact, accompanied by words uttered by awarded actors do NOT make for an interesting/engaging film. Perhaps it was a lack of chemistry or a total miscast of this boring linear eviscerated adaptation about a old man trapped in his present life with the memory of a long ago past life still so clear in his heart that he ultimately gets to return to . Think I'll reread the book just get that feeling of honored love and triumph back.

  • PG | April 23, 2011 8:11 AMReply

    I loved the translation from book to screen. I do not understand the need for the nursing home scenes. It wasn't necessary and would have been boring and drawn out on screen. Uncle Al was not needed either. As I was reading the book, I never understood why Gruen never made August the owner. August being the owner and ringmaster made the character more solid.

    August's character in the movie fulfilled what two characters did in the book. Otherwise, August would have been a one dimensional character on screen. Seeing more of the stampede was not needed on screen. It's background basically to be the catalyst to take care of August.

    As a reader of the book and seeing the movie, the movie was absolutely awesome. I think Maltin is wrong about the emotion. There are audiences across America who are cheering and clapping at the end of the movie. We get it. Apparently the experts are not.

    I don't know what emotion was missing. What was he wanting? Wanting what? Inevitability? Seriously? Every movie today is made with inevitability. Every RomCom, comedy and drama today are made of the same cloth.

    This movie is a throwback to movies made in the 50's and 60's when what was on screen was real and believable. NO special effects or overwhelming CGI. No fake lions and tigers and bears oh my! It was real down to the ropes pulling the tent and we (the audience) believed it.

    May I recommend that you movie critics go to your local theater this weekend and sit with a real audience. Maybe you'll finally feel what we felt.

  • steve shephard | April 23, 2011 6:36 AMReply

    No scenes from older Jacob's experiences in the nursing home, eliminating the real owner of the circus (Uncle Al), showing the Empire State Building in the background, at one location in 1931 (when it wasn't built until 1934), missing the dramatic set-up for the stampede, having the 1st scene of the movie actually be the last event in the book and numerous, unnecessary, departures from Sara Gruen's wonderful novel, all make it difficult for anyone who read the book to enjoy the movie.

  • kimball sterling | April 23, 2011 2:53 AMReply

    There are those of us out there that dont read the books and I would say that there are more of us than the readers. I was impressed with this movie, the set,
    the costumes, the story as a movie and I am a 60 year old male which had no expectations. Waltz should win another Oscar for his performance.
    The movie let me enter the depression era circus world which I never thought that I wished to enter.
    Its great entertainment and the detail is something you can only see in the movies.
    Never review the apples but the apple pie.

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