Based on the popular novel by Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants is at times doggedly faithful to its source novel, an attempt at fidelity that is surely to the film’s detriment. In the adaptation process it would seem that there has been a failure to realise that a novel and a film are two entirely different mediums, it is simply not enough to replicate the novel onscreen, there has to be some attempt to translate the narrative into something that will engage a viewing audience.
Robert Pattinson, best known for his efforts in the Twilight films, plays Jacob Jankowski, a young man studying Veterinary Sciences at Cornell University. Before Jacob can begin his final exam which will provide his qualification, he is informed that his parents have been killed in a car crash and through poor financial investments have left Jacob without his home. Feeling lost, Jacob aimlessly wanders for hours, finally jumping onto a passing train that, unbeknownst to him, belongs to and carries The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob is quickly put to work: once it is found out that he is effectively a vet, owner August (Christopher Waltz) employs Jacob to look after the animals of the show.
In acquiring an elephant, named Rosie, August believes he has solved the financial problems the show has been experiencing. Convinced that Rosie will become a star attraction, August instructs Jacob to help train Rosie and prepare an act that will involve his young wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
August, as described in the novel, is a violent paranoid schizophrenic, feared by the members of the show, he unashamedly beats animals and treats his wife with both cruelty and love. Jacob is filled with disgust at August, whilst quickly falling in love with Marlena.
Individually, the cast are all wonderful actors; unfortunately, as an ensemble each individual falls decidedly flat. Pattinson does his best, but there is no denying that there is little – If any – chemistry between his character and Witherspoon’s. Waltz too, is at his best when displaying August’s cruelty, but often this cruelty is hinted at rather than explicitly shown.
The novel itself, whilst admittedly sentimental, managed to balance its sentimentality by contrasting its depiction of violence, cruelty and sexuality, preventing the novel from falling into saccharine territory. Here, with any cruelty merely hinted at rather than overtly depicted, we see the effect after the event, decidedly lessening their impact, as well as their contrast to the melodramatic nature of the central relationship.
The novel features a dense first-person narrative, allowing the reader to familiarise themselves with the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings. The film, aside from a framing voice-over at the beginning and end of the film, largely dispenses with any attempt at first-person narration. Thus our opinion of Jacob is informed by other characters and their attitude towards him; unfortunately this is not enough to convince the viewer as to why we should empathise with Jacob, leaving the viewer caring little for his plight.
Through this the viewer fails to invest in the central romance, which supposedly provides the catalyst for the events of the film. This failure to engage the viewer, along with its rather mannered, ultimately slow style of pacing (a direct result of maintaining too much fidelity to the source novel) leaves the viewer disinterested in the film itself. Beautiful to look at, with impressive period details, Water for Elephants has little depth, making little attempt towards any form of character development.