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Brittany Madigan: Water for Elephants: Missing the spectacular

One hundred and twenty eight weeks. That’s all it took for the book about the most spectacular show on earth to become internationally known. The book Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen was released in 2006 and spent two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list. The book has sold 4.5 million copies to date.

The story is told as a series of memories by Jacob Jankowski, either a ninety (or ninety-three) year-old man who lives in a nursing home. Water for Elephants is a spirited and compelling novel about star-crossed lovers set in the circus world in the 1930’s. When the young Jacob becomes an orphaned college student, he throws himself on a passing circus train after running away from veterinary school. Jacob finds himself in a world of freaks, nomads, and outsiders trying to survive in an inferior circus during the Great Depression.

The circus train stops in town after endless town with only a few hours break in between. Jacob becomes in charge of the circus menagerie. There he meets Marlena, the beautiful star of the equestrian act and the wife of August, the harsh animal trainer and right-hand man to the boss. August is a brutal man who abuses the animals in his care as well as the people around him. Alternately, he can be utterly charming.



Once Jacob becomes the veterinarian for the big top, they acquire an elephant named Rosie. If it weren’t for Rosie, Marlena and Jacob may have never ended up together and survived. Jacob develops a guarded relationship with August and Marlena, with whom Jacob falls in love. August then becomes suspicious of their relationship. Marlena subsequently leaves August for Jacob, which is the precipitating event leading to the ultimate demise of the Benzini Brother’s Circus.

As the story climaxes, several circus workers who were red-lighted off the train return and release the animals causing a stampede during the anticipated performance. In the ensuing panic, August is killed by Rosie. As a result of this incident, the circus is shut down. Marlena and Jacob leave, along with several circus animals, and begin their life together.



Water for Elephants was one of the best books I have read lately. I highly enjoyed reading the book and I appreciated it on many different levels. It’s a beautiful love story but it also describes a strong relationship between humans and animals that everyone can relate to. Even more so, it’s a story that reminds us how age is just a passing of time and we have the ability to stay the same person.

After nearly 5 years as a best selling book, Water for Elephants was released as a movie in mid April this year. The two main characters in the book are the main characters in the book. Jankowski played by the overrated twilight star, Robert Pattinson, and Marlena, taken over by Reese Witherspoon.

Among performances, it’s Christopher Waltz (August) who portrays his position in the movie the best. August was the jealous, crazy husband and Waltz was able to achieve the dimensions he needed to overcome all of the attitudes August represents in the book.

Pattinson and Witherspoon both perform brilliantly in the movie, but they didn’t seem to have enough magic to make up the chemistry that was so greatly personified in the book.

On a better note, there is a sense of old fashion charm in the movie that matches the small visual notes Gruen makes in the book, whether it’s the costumes or the dialogues. I was impressed with the way the animals were incorporated with the actors and there was a sense of comfort between the two. Rosie, the elephant under the care of Pattinson, is adorable and all of the scenes they have together just seem to stand out from the rest.

Of course the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the book, but I would have to say that I’d buy the movie when it comes out. The movie and book both have a happy ending, which is almost cliché in the movie industry these days, but as for the plot, a lesson or two could be learned from it. Whether you read the book or see the movie, or both, all audiences will enjoy the story because it’s an extravaganza all on it’s own.

Book Grade: A+

Movie Grade: B-


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