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.