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Circus Minimus

Okay, filmmakers — this is an intervention. We’re going to talk about the elephant in the room. No, not Tai, the Asian pachyderm who plays Rosie the circus attraction in Water for Elephants. She’s not the problem (she may, in fact, be a more talented performer than Robert Pattinson). You need to hear how your destructive behavior — in this case, acquiring the rights to Sara Gruen’s wildly popular novel and then changing or omitting nearly every aspect of the book that makes readers love it — hurts avid readers and eager moviegoers.

To be sure, the basic outline and framing device of the story remain the same. It’s told in flashback by the elderly Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook, easily the best thing about this movie), who relates how, just days from graduating from Cornell veterinary school in 1931, he loses both his parents in an auto accident and the family home to the bank. At loose ends, he hits the road and ends up making a fateful jump onto a passing train — a circus train. Young Jacob (Pattinson) gets hired as the show’s veterinarian and finds himself falling in love with one of the performers, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who just happens to be married to August, the circus owner and ringmaster (in the film, August's character has been merged with another from the book). This would be a career-limiting move under the best of circumstances, but August (Christoph Waltz, playing another Germanic villain) is dangerously mercurial, sometimes oozing charm, at other times taking out his murderous temper on people and animals alike.

One feature of the book that’s so appealing is Jacob’s voice — both the virginal young man, aching with his first love and struggling to live according to the values he was raised by in the midst of an alien subculture, and the somewhat bewildered but still spirited old man, recalling his remarkable life and wondering where the time went. In the film version, Holbrook, in his limited time onscreen, holds up his end: his elderly Jacob is cantankerous and poignant. The same cannot be said of Pattinson, who has far more screen time. He’s not asked to do much besides smile good-naturedly and fight occasionally, and he acquits himself respectably on those counts. But he gets little opportunity to demonstrate an abiding love for animals, and he’s utterly unconvincing as a trained veterinarian (even one who missed his final exams).

As for the romance that’s central to the novel, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has radically altered Marlena’s back story. This may make more sense given the realities of the casting: Witherspoon is ten years Pattinson’s senior, whereas in the book Marlena is two years younger than Jacob. But it also changes the dynamic between the two completely. Witherspoon’s worldly-wise Marlena appears resigned, even committed, to the abusive August; her relationship with Jacob seems a flirtation, and not a very serious one at that. When she tells Jacob “I love you,” even Oscar-winner Witherspoon can’t make us believe it. Their love scene, so electric in the novel, fails to generate any heat onscreen.

On the other hand, director Francis Lawrence can’t resist the bizarre impulse to turn Marlena’s act with her liberty (unharnessed) horses into some kind of weird human-animal burlesque. Perhaps this can be attributed to Lawrence’s background directing music videos. That may also explain the lack of character development that afflicts the film.

We said this was an intervention, and interventions require treatment plans. Here’s what I recommend: Read John Irving’s Cider House Rules, which shares several commonalities with Water for Elephants: a Depression-era setting, a love triangle, and an orphaned hero trained as a doctor working among blue-collar folk. Then watch the 1999 film version directed by Lasse Hallström. Don’t kick yourself for not casting Tobey Maguire; what’s done is done. But pay attention to what those filmmakers chose to hold onto and what they let go of. Next time you adapt a beloved novel for the screen, don’t trade its humor for melodrama.

And if you refuse to accept the treatment? Then it’s back to Britney Spears videos for you.

Water for Elephants. Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, and Hal Holbrook star in a film directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Richard LaGravenese, and based on the novel by Sara Gruen. Rated PG-13 for a very tame sex scene, violence between humans, and cruelty to animals, as well as copious alcohol and tobacco consumption. Running time: 122 minutes.

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