Water for Elephants: A Movie Review

There surely has been a drought this spring of movies worth venturing out to see, so I was pleased when Water for Elephants, based on a best selling novel, hit the theaters.

The story is narrated by ninety year old Jacob Janowski after his family forgets to show up at the “home” where he lives to take him to the circus.  He relates how a personal tragedy interrupted his plans in 1931 and sent him out on the rails where he joined the Benzini Brother’s Circus as a vet.  Times were tough and circus life was gritty and often violent.

Jacob falls in love with Marlena, wife of August, the ringmaster, whose brutality sparks the biggest disaster in circus history.  Jacob and Marlena survive, rescue Rosie the elephant and a Jack Russell terrier, and after a successful stint with Ringling Brothers, settle down to raise five sons who forget about Jacob when he is 90.  The circus boss he tells the story to offers him a job, and Jacob feels like he’s coming home.

It’s a decent story, but…

The “but” is that I never really engaged with the characters.  What is the magic that causes us to bond and identify with a character in a movie or a novel?  You can’t say what it is, but you know it when it happens and you know when it doesn’t.  I actually felt worse when Rosie the elephant was beaten that when the goons beat up Jacob.

In contrast to Water for Elephants, my heart was really gripped by another movie about an old man who loses his wife and home but reinvents himself at the end of life.  This was the animated feature, Up (2009).  Up required a surreptitious kleenex in the theater.  Water for Elephants?  Not even close.

I would be curious to hear a response to the movie by someone who read the book first.  In retrospect, I feel like the movie made unsuccessful attempts to manipulate me.  Take August, the villain.  At one point during the movie, Mary leaned over and whispered, “bipolar.”  I said, “alcoholic.”  On the way home we agreed on a dual diagnosis, and now, on Wikipedia, I read that in the book he was pegged as a paranoid schizophrenic – not that circus roustabouts in 1931 knew what that is.  And regardless, if understanding of the villain’s bad behavior depends on a diagnosis, something is missing from the story.

I’m not sorry I went to see this movie, but unfortunately, I have to suggest that others save their money.

2 thoughts on “Water for Elephants: A Movie Review

  1. Well, thanks for the heads up. I’ve heard so much about this, I intended to see the movie. Instead, I’ll read the book and let you know if it’s any good. I also liked Up, by the way, and read a book yesterday that had me from the first page — Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. I will be writing about it on my blog soon (after my review appears in the Sacramento Book Review), but you don’t need to wait to read it. It’s sooooo good.


  2. I thought of Freddie’s Journey often during the movie, but I think you sketched the era well enough that reading the book will suffice. I’m curious to hear your response. Also, I just downloaded “Okay for Now” to my kindle and am looking forward to that. Thanks for the tip.


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