MAY / JUNE 2011: BY SHANNON H.
Sara Gruen’s historical fiction novel, Water for Elephants, was published in 2007 and became a best seller. For Christmas, my aunt had given me the book when it first came out and I neglected to read it for some time but I finally managed to delve into the story of veterinary student Jacob Janikowski struggling with the loss of his parents and trying to find himself among the many creatures great and small of the Benzini Brothers Circus. With the traveling circus, he finds his niche and camaraderie with the people that work in it. In 2011, the film version of Water for Elephants comes to the big screen with Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, and Reese Witherspoon in the leading roles as Jacob, August, and Marlena respectively. It is a fine adaptation of Gruen’s novel, but like most adaptations, it leaves a few details out. Some are minor and not worth discussing but there are a few aspects of the book that have been omitted from the film.
One of these glittering omissions is not necessarily an aspect or detail but a character in the book. In the novel, the owner and ringleader of Benzini Brothers Circus is a man named Uncle Al. He is in charge of who gets paid and who is redlighted, or thrown from the train in the middle of the night for being unproductive. Uncle Al is abusive and cruel to employees who aren’t pulling their own weight and forces Marlena to perform with her abusive husband August despite the fact that she is scared to be with him, because their elephant act is a great money-making venture. In the film, Uncle Al is non-existent and August is the one in charge of the circus, whereas formerly August was just an animal trainer. I think it would’ve been interesting to keep the Uncle Al character and cast Danny DeVito in that role; it would be nice to see him performing a corrupt and cruel circus manager and possibly get an Oscar for it.
In the book, August is described as a paranoid schizophrenic whose nasty temper tantrums are usually directed at Marlena and Jacob. Shortly afterward, August will apologize profusely to both and offer to take them out to dinner as a way of making nice. He is also abusive to Rosie, the newly acquired elephant for Marlena’s performance act. On screen August doesn’t appear to be afflicted with mental illness; he merely seems to be jealous, abusive, hot-headed, and possessive. He he is seen apologizing for hitting Rosie with a bull hook but not for his behavior toward Marlena. Going in I expected him to be a paranoid version of mathematician John Nash, complete with visual and auditory hallucinations, which would’ve vastly “improved” his character’s evil side; in fact, it would’ve made the film more faithful to the novel. Unfortunately, the film makers took liberty with Waltz’s character and toned him down a little.
One of the few obvious differences between the book Water for Elephants and the film version has to do with the older Jacob staying in a retirement home. In both the book and the movie, it is implied that Jacob lives in a retirement home he isn’t really fond of. In the beginning of the novel, Jacob is seen in the home, getting into a heated argument with another man who claims to have been in the circus. Jacob didn’t believe him. This gets him banished to his room by the rest home staff and he has to eat his meals in his room by himself and not with his friends. The book then depicts Jacob talking to the nursing staff about his time at the circus through a series of flashbacks to 1931 two years after the Great Depression hit the United States. In the film, Jacob is attending a circus and the staff finds him wandering the grounds at night. He ends up telling the circus owner about his time with Benzini Brothers. While both the opening scenes are different, the beginning of the film is actually a new take on the ending of the novel. I think the script writers should’ve stuck with the original setup but that wouldn’t be feasible to make the movie work; in a sense, this change was necessary. I did like how they took the end and created an interesting way to make a beginning.
Like most adaptations of books this is not entirely true to the written word for various reasons; one of them is to keep the running time relatively short. Sometimes these omissions don’t make a difference but others have an immense effect on the plot. With Water for Elephants, some editing was necessary to simplify the story but a few more changes would have improved the film for the better. While altering the beginning of the story was a good thing for the film, the character of Uncle Al should’ve been included as well as August’s dark side of mental illness. If the film makers featured him having hallucinations and acting on them, it would make his character a lot darker and more sinister than how he was originally depicted. Still, the movie version of Water for Elephants is more faithful than disloyal to Sara Gruen’s novel. ■