Too Much Sex, Too Little Elephant: “Water For Elephants” by Sara Gruen – Review – and I also watched the movie so there’s a hint of Film versus Book
After the missed opportunity of “When God Was A Rabbit” by Sarah Winman, in which there was too much sex and too little rabbit, I moved onto “Water for Elephants” in the hope that an optimal sex/animal balance would be reinstated in my reading, but no.
“Water for Elephants” works from the present day, following our protagonist Jacob as he struggles with the challenges of ageing – which seem to revolve around people’s unhelpful and frustrating perceptions of him as ageing. He finds it irritating to have his diet and activities dictated to him by the staff of the nursing home. At the same time, he struggles to know how old he is, he confuses names and memories, and he knows he is becoming confused. He has a walker, but the staff twitch nervously when he uses it. He is grumpy and socially isolated.
The nursing home narrative is the framework for the story, and the story there is that a circus is coming to town, and Jacob is keen to go and see it as he worked on a Circus in his youth, not that he tells anyone. From the perspective of this plot line culminating in the day the Circus comes to town, we have the narrative from the past, charting Jacob’s life at the Benzini Brothers’ Circus at the height (nadir?) of The Great Depression. The ‘past’ narrative works in and out of the present day narrative – both are chronological in themselves, largely.
When the novel jumped from page to screen, much of the theme of ageing was lost. In the movie, the present day narrative is reduced to the day the circus came, in fact, the night after the show. Jacob misses the show and gets chatting to one of the workers and, in both versions, decides to run away with the circus in the end.
The exception to the chronological flow is the prologue, which is revisited later in the novel.
The effect of this is that you know a scene of carnage is going to ensue when all the animals escape from the menagerie and there is a stampede. During the chaos, “…she lifted the stake high in the air and brought it down, splitting his head like a watermelon”.
We await this melon split for the duration of the novel. When it happens, “…she splits his head in a single clean movement – ponk – like cracking a hardboiled egg”… So there you go. Watermelon to egg. Go figure.
The clever bit is the misleading Prologue. We get the watermelon description, and surrounding it is the chaos of the stampede – and, I didn’t notice it at the time, but it was misleading or ambiguous.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie and want to, you need to stop reading this review now.
It is implied from the start that it is Marlena that kills August, whereas it is really Rosie. So for the whole novel I was psyching up for Marlena to kill her husband, but this never happens. So, that’s the clever bit of the novel – but that’s the bit that just could not really transfer to screen, because if you could see it, it wouldn’t have been ambiguous. Although they could have done some kind of blurred stramash from random angles.
And in the movie, the remains of August look too much like August. He was supposed to end up as trampled pulp.
Anyway. Onto the sex and elephant issue. This is where the film got it better than the book. In the book there were various sordid moments that were regrettable for Jacob and unwanted by at least this reader. The film managed to convey the same regrettable evening simply by showing Jacob wake up in a humiliating clown outfit and have the other characters laugh at him, and tell him he vomitted over Barbara, where in the book, I kind of had to see him vomit on Barbara. So, too much sex.
But too little elephant. The guy is a vet. At a circus. And the book it called “Water for Elephants”. I want there to be a “War Horse“-esque boy-and-his-elephant bond. With a whole menagerie of exotic animals to choose from, there was scope for some pro-animal relationships. However, he does very little vet science as far as I remember – he cures that dog, shoots Silver Star and figures out that the Elephant is Polish – but not until quite late on in the novel. At least in the film they gave us a great-and-glorious era with Rosie and Marlena starring quite happily until August flips out.
And there’s a point. The movie merged the characters of August and Uncle Al – so August was the ringmaster in the movie. I think it worked OK that way – all we missed out on was a depressing suicide at the end, which I suppose was a stark symbol of the depression that we lost.
August was an interesting character, bi-polar and unpredictable. He is violent to the animals and eventually his wife. But no one stands up to him. We wanted Jacob to defend the animals but he was totally glaikit and just stood by. As a character, disappointing. As a vet! Pathetic. He should have tranquillised August.
I thought the ending of the book was great. For quite bleak themes of ageing and the Depression, Jacob gets to runaway with the circus again. Similarly, at the end of the ‘past’ narrative, he gets the girl, gets the elephant and manages to escape the effects of the depression and live a happy life. The only downside was his unreliable children, but we get the feeling that he has moved on, as circus folk do.
The one bit that the film made clear, that I failed to see in the book, was the reason why the stampede happened. In the film, the roustabouts are furious that some of their number were killed by being tossed from the train. As revenge, they released the animals. In the book, I failed to join these events together.
The story was interesting in a kind of historical cultural way, and dealt with a good few key themes: conflict, death, poverty, violence, love, age, youth…
The movie was great visually, and I think it was really well cast.
But novelists out there: less sex, more animals please!