Sunday, May 1, 2011
At the Movies: Water for Elephants
When I bought my ticket for Water for Elephants, the clerk asked me if I'd read the book. "No," I answered, resisting the urge to insist, "But I am a reader. I'm like you! I usually do read the book before seeing the movie." Perhaps this somewhat dramatic internal reaction was brought on by my trip to Borders the day before. I'd seen a display of Water for Elephants paperbacks underneath a sign pushily urging potential buyers to "read the book, see the movie." (You may recall that I ignored this edict, opting instead to buy I Love Ken: My Life as the Ultimate Boyfriend.) The clerk went on to say that the book had been so wonderful that she hadn't wanted it to end, and that for once the movie did an excellent job of capturing it. I nodded, promising to read it, then shuffled toward the ticket taker.
So, the movie. Water for Elephants is a frame story. I don't know about you, but I love a good frame story. There's something about hearing a story told as a flashback that makes it more symbolic and poignant. Water for Elephants is no different. It begins with an elderly man trying to get into a circus at night in the rain long after the last show has ended. At first he seems a little senile, a little lost. But then he begins to talk about his days with the Benzini Brothers Circus back in the 1930s, morphing into a twenty-something version of himself (played by Robert Pattinson) as the plot unravels.
All of a sudden, he's Jacob, the son of good-hearted Polish immigrants on the verge of getting his veterinary degree from Cornell. But just as he's about to take his final exam, he finds out that his parents have been killed in a car accident. Shaken and alone, Jacob sets off on foot with the vague notion of heading toward Albany to find work. Instead he hops aboard a train full of rough-hewn men who threaten to toss him onto the tracks. But just as it looks like the end, a white-haired gent takes pity on him (as always seems to be the case in such stories). He tells Jacob that he's joined a traveling circus and promises to get him a job (which turns out to be shoveling manure). But it isn't until Jacob catches sight of the beautiful Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the circus owner's wife, that his fate is truly sealed. Although initially distant, Marlena thaws when Jacob tries to help her ailing horse, Silver. Their newfound friendship is only strengthened when Marlena's cruel husband, August (Christoph Waltz), refuses to have Silver put down as Jacob recommended, insisting that he can get a few more shows out of him. Unable to see any creature in pain, Jacob disobeys August. At first, August is hostile, even murderous. But he quickly brings Jacob back into the fold when the loss of the horse nets him his next star attraction, a curious elephant named Rosie. The incident marks the beginning of a complicated relationship between Jacob, Marlena, and August, the kind that will (forgive the cliche) leave all three changed forever.
In some ways, this story was what I expected and wanted. It made me cry, which is always the hallmark of a tale well told. Still, I couldn't help but feel that there was something missing, some intangible element that I suspected could be felt only when reading the book. Then again, if the good stuff was more powerful in print, then it followed that the bad stuff would be, too. And I wasn't sure that I wanted to delve more deeply into the gritty themes of violence and animal cruelty that were so central to the story. Like many people, I've always found the circus to be more macabre than cheerful. Water for Elephants draws upon this darkness to reveal the more unseemly, animalistic sides of human relationships. Undeniably unsettling, it delivers more than mere entertainment but demands more than your attention in return.