Water for Elephants: Book or Film?

Need an enjoyable read this summer? Try Water for Elephants (2006). Author Sara Gruen was a featured speaker at the 2011 AWP Conference held in Washington D.C. I was going to the event and curious to read her work to consider her talent. Consider the commercial success of The Lovely Bones or Secret Life of Bees and compare them to literary masterpieces like Middlesex or The Handmaid’s Tale. Why is literary fiction highly esteemed and what makes it “better than” projects which are merely commercial fiction? Does Sara Gruen write literary fiction or is her success due to the commercial popularity of her stories? Recent speakers at the Association of Writer’s and Programs include heavy weights, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Irving. If Gruen is grouped to speak among these greats, her writing should show the high-caliber of literary fiction.

The novel surrounds the circus life,1930, and Gruen’s strength is the construction of two characters. One is the elder narrator, Jacob Jankowski, and the second is Rosie, the pachyderm cow. The premise for her novel is unique and interesting with a historical edge that adds weight to an otherwise typical love-triangle plot. The story is told from two perspectives, the 90-year-old Mr. Jankowski as he grapples with his remaining days in a nursing home, and his former self within a flashback of his life as a vet in the circus. I enjoyed the older Jankowski much more than his younger self. For example, the geriatric version impatiently counts the minutes for his family to visit and escort him to the circus which arrives to town. It’s the impetus for all the memories of his early twenties when he ran away and joined the circus. Gruen did a great job creating a cantankerous character who, for all his bluff and animosity, is a gentle, scared man who is reduced to tears. I like how Gruen has the younger and older self run away and join the circus. It’s a nice package.


Sara Gruen managed to create another memorable character by personifying an elephant named Rosie. Gruen mentioned in her afterword that she discovered the story of an elephant that could only understand German. Those who tried to train her were disappointed and presumed she was an idiot. In the novel, Gruen created that interesting fact of history into a memorable character who responds to Polish. Gruen adds the menagerie of animals in a stampede as a lead up to the climax of the book. Is Water for Elephants literary fiction? No, I don’t think so. While I appreciated the culture of the circus, I thought the protagonist as the young narrator was flat. Also, the most intriguing character, the owner of the Benzini Circus, was a  one-dimensional tyrant. His cruel treatment of everything around him including his wife made the love-triangle obvious. There is nothing wrong with being a successful, commercial fiction writer. Water for Elephants sustained my interest, and there were parts that shimmered with authenticity.

The book was better than Francis Lawrence’s 2011 film version whose highlight was actor Christoph Waltz. He added the believable depth that was missing from the book as the manic-depressive, alcoholic tyrant husband to his Barbie-doll wife played by Reese Witherspoon. He tried to stop younger Jankowski from stealing his wife. Robert Patterson, played the circus vet and completed the love triangle surprisingly well. Other strengths of the film were Rosie the elephant and watching the workers erect the circus tent. Overall, the movie was mediocre due to the banal script and lack of emphasis on the intriguing circus culture. I’d stick with the book. What did you think of the movie?

17 thoughts on “Water for Elephants: Book or Film?

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    1. Hi Tom, well, the book is good with masculine characters and so feels more than a Nicholas Sparks book. The film is above mediocre and because it has Christoph Waltz, it is entertaining enough.


  1. I hate to say I haven’t read the book or seen the film, despite the attraction of RP. Having read your post and all the comments, I will definitely read the book! SD


  2. Hello Cindy! I’m trying to catch up w/ the blogging world after I came back late last night. Still not up to blog yet but maybe tomorrow.

    Well after seeing the movie, surely the book is better. I just don’t feel any chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon, I think the elephant outshines pretty much everyone in this movie!


    1. LOL 🙂 Yes, imagine being a star and outshined by an elephant. Glad you are back! I hope to hear of your adventures/pictures. Was Bruge as photogenic as it appears? Was Amsterdam charming? Did Paris capture your imagination? Hope you two had a lovely time.


  3. Terrific review, Cindy, of both film and book. I thought the book was truly engaging and I have a particular thirst for all things historical fiction. And although the movie was mostly well acted (especially by the elephant), it is nearly impossible for a film–in my opinion–to live up to the depth and breadth of details expertly crafted and bound within two cardboard covers.
    I enjoyed them both, but for different reasons.


  4. On this occasion I have not read the book. But I would say that the very best a movie can hope for is to be as good as the book. The movie is never better than the book IMO. My prime example would be ‘Mr Nice’ the true story of Howard Marks. An amazing book and an incredible story totally trashed in the movie of the same name.


  5. Great piece. I like comparing films and books. I haven’t read ‘Water for Elephants’ and having watched the movie I found it a bit unremarkable, but I do agree with you that Christoph Waltz did a very great job. The films did create the right atmosphere, but I kept thinking that the movie was there primarily to showcase the rising star Pattinson rather than do anything else. As for films which are better than books I think there are more of them there then people suspect, for example, ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, and ‘The Virgin Suicides’ film was I think as good as the book, if not much better.


    1. I love Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex was a masterstroke of fine writing. As far as Cuckoo’s Nest, I have to disagree. The book is one of my all time favorite books and is sooooo much better than the film, and I liked the film very much. That imagery and the evil of Nurse R. as a machine and society as a combine–brilliant stuff. Can’t get that beauty on the film. 😉


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