Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Water for Elephants'

I haven't done this in a while, but I'm reviewing the book and movie in tandem given that I saw the movie barely a day after finishing the book and it seems silly to review them separately!

The Book: Water for Elephants

The Author: Sara Gruen

How I Found It: I decided to act on my longstanding interest in reading the book after seeing Christoph Waltz would star in the movie adaptation (I will follow this man's career to the end after seeing Inglourious Basterds!).

The Review: Jacob Jankowski has ended up on the wrong side of fate. Just as he is about to sit his final exams for his veterinary science degree at Cornell, he is informed that his parents have been killed in a car crash--and that his father defaulted on the second mortgage he took out to pay Jacob's education. Left with nowhere to go, Jacob is wandering along the railroad tracks when a train passes, and he hops on without knowing just what he'll find.

What he does find is the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus run by the tyrannical Uncle Al, who is hell-bent on outperforming the Ringling Brothers. Jacob is tasked with looking after an ill liberty horse, told to fix the problem when it is clear the horse won't last much longer. The performer in the liberty horses act is Marlena, who has such a way with the horses that Jacob is taken with her immediately.

As Jacob begins to perform his duties as the show's official vet, he is drawn closer and closer to Marlena... and Marlena's volatile husband August. The situation isn't helped by the addition of the elephant Rosie to the show; Rosie is allegedly stupid and unable to be taught. Jacob finds himself in love with both Marlena and Rosie--and has to figure out how to protect them both from August's violence.

I don't think I was quite as taken with this book as others were. It rates about three stars for me--I liked it, but I can't say I thought it was anything too amazing, writing-wise. There's an impressive amount of period accuracy and Gruen clearly did her homework many times over, but the writing itself was just basic, nothing too elegant or worth remembering. I wasn't so sure how well the framing device worked for me, either: we open the book with the elderly Jacob in a nursing home, and keep returning to him periodically as the story goes on. The thing is, I start wondering if I can read these sections without laughing when phrases like "my ticker" and "dagnabbit" are thrown around in all seriousness. Towards the end, I did like the elderly Jacob sections, as they gave us a sense of the full life he'd led, but in the beginning, I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at the cheesy language.

My other gripe was about Jacob and Marlena, who were far too flat and uninteresting for my tastes. Jacob is this utter paragon of goodness, to the point that it becomes so boring to read about him! He's the defender of animals and abused women, the type of person who feels immediate shame at guarding the "cooch tent." (All of this would be interesting if he only had flaws. I just wanted the kid to do something wrong once in a while just to prove that he was human.) Marlena comes off as little more than a caricature of a female character of the era, and even her backstory was cliched. I couldn't buy into their romance because I honestly didn't see much substance to it. Jacob seems to fall in love with her because of her prowess with horses and the fact that he (a) can't have her and (b) wants to protect her from abuse. Wanting to protect her is noble, but it just fell flat for me when I couldn't see any other reason to want them to be together. I'm also not a fan of characters falling in love far too quickly (as in, a few days to a few weeks), and that was what happened here.

However, that's not to say the characterizations were all bad. On the contrary, I loved reading about August and Rosie, as well as Jacob's friends Kinko/Walter and Camel. (I think it says something when your villain and an animal character are more interesting than your two leads.) Jacob's friendships with Kinko/Walter and Camel were nicely handled and became touching at the end. August was twisted and sadistic, but that was much more interesting than Jacob's flawlessness. Rosie was amusing and noble, and it was great to read about how she was trained and all the things elephants are capable of. I had no idea they were as smart as they apparently are. This book left me with a newfound appreciation for animals who perform, as long as they're treated well.

That brings me to the issue of appropriateness--I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone younger than 15 or so, or at the very least, a mature 14. I was meant to read this book for my high school book club a few years ago, until the teacher we ran it with read up to the part with the cooch tent and realized it was inappropriate for our younger members! I'm not normally one to object to sexual content in books, but I think this one would be a little too much for younger readers. And then there's something that would really bother sensitive readers and/or animal lovers: the animal abuse. Those were the only parts of the book that had me crying. August beats Rosie on more than one occasion, and it's just hideous to read about. (Not to mention the slightly unorthodox methods of keeping the animals fed and housed, which were cruel.) The animal abuse is certainly period-correct, but it was tough for me to stomach and would definitely bother younger readers.

Overall, I felt the book was a good read, but nothing truly special, due to the flatness of Jacob and Marlena's characterizations and the plain writing style. I think it's a good beach read, something a person could race through in a day or two, but it's not much more substantial than that. However, in one of the only times I will say this, I felt the movie was much better than the book.

Because the characters and story were so outrageous, it just seemed like a story that needed to be seen, not read. All the description in the world can't match the actual sight of the circus acts, or the elephant herself. It was great to actually see the liberty horses, to see the elephant who played Rosie, Tai, get to do the things I was amazed at when I read them in the book.

Jacob and Marlena were played well enough by Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and their lack of flaws and bland personalities didn't seem to grate at me as much onscreen. I actually enjoyed watching them together and could buy into their physical chemistry. The final sequence of the film (which I won't spoil here) left me crying, and I realized that I felt more for the characters in the film than I did their novel counterparts, a sign that the movie was, in my eyes, better.

Christoph Waltz played August to skin-crawling perfection; the standout scene for me was when he directs Jacob and Marlena to touch each other in front of him under the pretense of dictating a circus act. There were times when I felt it was played a little too well--as I said before, the animal abuse is just too difficult to watch; I ended up crying so much before it even happened that I closed my eyes for the scene when he beats Rosie. Even the sounds of it were horrifying. Again, viewers sensitive to animal abuse should beware.

The movie is definitely worth seeing just for the sights and sounds of the circus, especially Tai the elephant. Towards the end, the film is touchingly handled, and I was able to connect with it emotionally in a way I hadn't for the book. I never thought I'd say this, but the movie was better than the book, in my opinion, and comes highly recommended from me!

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