Academic Writing

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Water for Elephants

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It’s a rarity that I find a movie to be better than the book upon which it’s based. However, that is how I felt after watching the screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. I read the book following an enormous amount of hype from friends and relatives, but was pretty underwhelmed by the lack of plot or character development. The movie stepped in and fulfilled some of the book’s lacking in those elements.. The film also adds a whole other dimension by creating the circus as an entirely new character in the book.

Told as an extended flashback, a la Titanic, the story centers on Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), who, despondent upon learning of his parents death in a gruesome car accident, abandons his final exams at Cornell veterinarian school and quite literally runs away with the circus. Feeling like he has no where in the world to turn, he hops a train which turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers, a traveling circus. This introduces him to a new and foreign world filled with poor and hungry men who resort to violence as a means to an end. To pay his way, he is assigned some of the lowliest demeaning work. However, one night while shoveling horse manure he encounters Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the mesmerizing horse trainer, with whom he is immediately entranced. Unbeknownst to him, however, she is married to August (Christoph Waltz), the tormenting and abusive ringleader.

August’s temper is fueled when he purchases what is supposed to be a new star attraction: a 52 year-old elephant named Rosie. Jacob is immediately charged as her caretaker, but August becomes enraged when Rosie doesn’t heed his orders. As Jacob continues to train Rosie and Marlena learns how to perform with her new animal the three form a tight bond. Eventually Marlena and Jacob fall in love and decide to run away from August and The Benzini Brothers once and for all.

This film does a good job at immediately bringing the viewer into the narrative world it inhabits. From the first frame of older Jacob (Hal Holbrook) standing in the rain in front of the Big Top I felt like a kid again, excited about the wonders that are about to unfold. When the movie flashes back to 1931, the aesthetic goes from a rich color palate to a muted sepia-inspired visual landscape. That enhances the viewers’ connection to the narrative and it’s an option available to a visual medium alone which director, Francis Lawrence takes full advantage of. The circus itself and the mystique which surrounds it, and has surrounded it for decades, is made palpable by seeing it in front of you in high definition. The spectacle of the animals and the men hoisting up the tent brought me back to when I used to visit the circus myself and reminded me of watching Dumbo and Toby Tyler on repeat as a child.

I also appreciated the filmmaker’s ability to introduce us to the periphery characters of the story and yet still managed to keep it moving along, whereas the book often felt bogged down by superfluous details.  Whereas often the book felt stalled because of this, the movie kept the narrative moving forward.  The supporting cast added a colorful menagerie of personalities which enhanced the feeling of what life in the circus might have been like.

The biggest problem I had with this movie, however, was the lack of chemistry between the leading characters. Rather than believing that Jacob and Marlena were truly and madly in love with one another, it seemed more that she needed an out and he was just there and was nice to her, unlike her abusive husband.  As opposed to believing that they were soul-mates, it seemed more that Marlena just needed to get away and Jacob was willing to care for her so she took him up on his offer.  The love story was more believable as one between Jacob and “The Circus.” That lifestyle was where he reclaimed his life and found a way to make sense of the world. His relationship with Rosie was also deeper and more sympathetic than the one shared between Marlena and Jacob, furthering his sense of attachment with the circus. That’s a pretty big one, considering the film has been marketed as a romantic love story, but it doesn’t detract from the film on a whole.

Ultimately, there is not much of a real story in Water for Elephants:  it's more of a snapshot of time spent with the circus.  However by using certain visual techniques and introducing the information in particular ways Lawrence makes the story his own and creates a whole new visual and ultimately satisfying experience.

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