Water for Elephants: Review

In general, I’m not one to complain about book to movie adaptations. I understand that they’re different mediums, that some things are easier to convey in word form as opposed to visual, and vice-versa. I can respect creative control and creative departures from the source material.

For instance, I think the Bourne Identity was a great movie, but it was loosely based on the book. The screenwriter didn’t even read it. But they got the meat of the story out there in a way that directly copying the book probably wouldn’t have succeeded with.

Then again, I think some of the creative changes to the Harry Potter story were pointless and, in two cases, actually damaged the story. I’m, of course, speaking of Harry standing idly by at the end of Half-Blood Prince (the exact opposite behavior that we’ve come to expect of go-get-em Harry), and the end of Deathly Hallows part 2 (pointless fight scene with Voldemort despite knowing it will only end one way).

But I still enjoyed the films for the most part and if what you just read is my biggest complaint of book to movie adaptations, then I think it’s clear that I’m not a huge critic of the practice.

But Water for goddamn Elephants? Jesus. I could barely sit through that.

For anyone who hasn’t read it and hates spoilers, let me just say that I think it’s a worthwhile read, but it’s not that great. It’s about a guy in his early twenties who joins a circus in 1931, during the Great Depression and Prohibition. It’s a great setting and so many of the little quirky things that happen to him are based on real events. Crazy animal things, crazy moonshine things, crazy murder things… That’s good reading. The story overall? Meh. Aside from a very satisfying twist at the end, I think it served as more of a vehicle for the setting and misadventures than as a story in itself.

The movie took its liberties and I would say about 90% of those liberties were choices that harmed the tale.

So, spoilers abound from here on out.

Killing Walter and Camel was stupid. It served as little more than masturbatory sadness fuel for Jacob, and it was poorly portrayed at that. I understand that it was like… a warning for Jacob, “Hey look, Jacob isn’t around to kill, I guess we’ll kill his friends to let him know we mean business.” But, really? Jacob gets super sad for like, one paragraph and they aren’t mentioned again in any flashbacks. No mourning, no going back to see if Walter survived? I mean, the guys that told Jacob about it said they thought he wouldn’t last the day, but he’s a smart guy, that Walter, you’d think he would know how to tourniquet his legs or something?

Just dumb. That whole thing. The book is filled with misery and you get the distinct impression that Jacob doesn’t smile ever. So let’s kill two innocent guys to illustrate just how depraved people were back then.

So how did the movie handle it? Well, they killed Walter and Camel, just the same, except this time, they had already left Jacob for dead. They didn’t need to send him a message. August didn’t claim to know about Camel (as opposed to Uncle Al knowing about him in the book) so why any of that happened is beyond me. They somehow took a retarded plot point and made it worse.

And the whole escape with Marlena thing just to find out that August somehow stopped the train, sent a bunch of guys to walk four hours back to town and track the renegade couple… I mean, the train was moving and Jacob and Marlena jump, you can’t just stop a train on a railroad. There are other trains. And then you get your thugs to go back and find them? Why would any thug agree to that? You haven’t been paid in two months cause your boss went into debt buying an elephant, he’s clearly psychotic, why would you do anything for him?

And Marlena. Originally, she was a middle-class girl with a droll future, until she gave up all of life’s comforts to join a circus. Then she gets trapped with a violent schizophrenic husband who she fears, but at least she has the circus, the performances, the thrill of horses and elephants, to keep her sane. She consciously lives with her fear, she acknowledges that she made a questionable decision, but SHE decided. The movie made her a victim who needed to be rescued. She was an abandoned orphan who was abused by foster families. Horses were her salvation. Then she got trapped by August and needed DOUBLY rescued, by Jacob, of course, from both a life of poverty and abuse, but also from a bad marriage. Score one for feminism. Women don’t make decisions. They are always victims of circumstance who need a knight in shining armor.

And let us not forget how abysmal the chemistry was between Reese Witherspoon and Edward something something. Robert Pattinson? It was just not there, so there’s nothing more to say about how absent the chemistry was.

Now, August was almost done right. See, I’m okay with combining Uncle Al and August. Keeping track of so many characters in a movie can be difficult, especially when they both fill similar storytelling archetypes. They’re both bosses. People fear them. They do scoundrely things to get what they want. That’s a good example of creative departure that I can be okay with.

But remember this for a moment: Conditional success.

In the book, August is a paranoid schizophrenic, or as Uncle Al says, to my amusement, a paragon schnitzophonic. They lay it out toward the end and it is effective. He’s not just moody, he’s got a mental disorder that makes him somewhat of a victim. He needs treatment. Sara Gruen doesn’t effectively illustrate the regretful side of August’s personality, that he really does feel guilt when he is in a normal state. We always get people making excuses for him and then telling the reader that he “feels terrible” and such. We never actually see him crying his eyes out, trying to understand himself and why he acts like such a violent douche every now and then. So, in the book, there was that conditional success you remember. Labeling him as paranoid schizophrenic explains so much, and it would have been a successful plot reveal IF, conditional if, he had been illustrated as something more than a diabolical monster.

The movie did a great job, a conditionally successful job, of showing August’s rational guilty side. When he beats Rosie and starts sobbing, his wife won’t speak to him and he’s spattered with Rosie’s blood, he is inconsolable and gives up all of his whiskey to help Rosie feel better, that was a great scene. It was the only departure from the book I liked. We humanized a broken human. Made him relateable.

And then screwed that up too.

Because in the book, when Marlena and Jacob try to surprise August with champagne, August flips out and asks, smiling, “How long have you been fucking my wife?” That was creepy and effective in the book. Instead, in the film, we get a long, drawn out scene of August playing puppetmaster, fully conscious of himself and what he believes of his wife’s affair. There is nothing broken about his thinking there, which is what makes the previous guilt scene conditionally successful. Instead of August having a serious mental disorder, now he’s just plain evil. He only feigns guilt and sadness to get his way, which is not at all what a paranoid schizophrenic thinks about. Hollywood had to make August a bad guy, not a sad guy, and that cheapens the whole thing.

So, because of all of that, we get a full-blown showdown at the end, fisticuffs and wrestling, August trying to kill Marlena, and the Elephant saving the day. Picturesque Hollywood ending. All characters are noble and perfect or pure evil. Jacob doesn’t murder August in his sleep, not because Jacob has a conscience, but because Marlena doesn’t want him to.

To sum up, the book was good, but not great. The movie took most of the good stuff about the book and changed it for the worse, then took the bad stuff from the book and made it into the worst.


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