The elderly Jacob Jankowski is reflecting on his life and tells his story in a series of memories. He remembers the 1930s, when the depression was devastating Americans. Jacob was studying to be a veterinarian when a family tragedy struck and he was forced to leave home prior to graduation. One night he jumps on a train only to discover it belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus. Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, hires Jacob care for the animals. Al is brutal and when he cannot afford to pay wages or when he is displeased with his workers, he has them ‘red-lighted’ – thrown off the moving train.
Jacob meets August the circus ringleader who harshly treats the animals and his keeps his wife Marlena, an acrobatic circus headliner, under his thumb. August is particularly brutal with Rosie, the elephant that is part of Marlena’s act. Jacob sees himself as the protector of both Rosie and Marlena. Over time, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, leading to a confrontation with August. The story builds to a climax in which an incident occurs at the circus.
The book was an enjoyable, lightweight read. I loved the setting in the depression era, the melodrama and the other-worldliness of life in the circus. I found the character of Marlena annoying though. She seemed to be continually crying and was not as strong as I would have expected for someone who had endured the hard life her back story projected. She could have been much more vibrant and written with more depth, which would have made the love story more realistic and heartfelt. I don’t see what Jacob saw in her.
The film Water for Elephants (2011) stars Reese Witherspoon (Marlena), Robert Pattinson (Jacob) and Christoph Waltz (August). It is directed by Francis Lawrence, best known as a music video director, with a surprisingly old fashioned feel. The movie cuts out some of the characters in the book (like Uncle Al, making August the owner/operator of the circus) and focuses primarily on the love story angle. There were some elements I enjoyed in the film – the setting up of the big top, the minor carny characters (although it would have been great to see more of them), and the training of Rosie. Waltz, who seems destined to play the bad guy, is menacing and charming in equal measures and quickly becoming one of my favourite actors. But I didn’t believe Pattinson’s character and thought both he and Witherspoon were miscast. I also thought the climactic incident at the end could have been staged more clearly and been made more dramatic. A great DVD for a cloudy Saturday afternoon though.