Adaptations are tough for filmmakers to craft, and “Water for Elephants” is no exception. Everything from the casting, to the set design, to the costumes and music will be held, usually unfavorably, against the novel upon which it is based.
Sara Gruen, who wrote the novel, created a world of dark imagery and romantic manipulation, revealing the ugly truths lurking beneath the glossy surface of circus life.
The film, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson, definitely succeeds in showing the glitz and romanticism of a circus lifestyle, but it fails to expose the subversive elements that invaded the character’s lives and made them interesting to read about.
One problem with the film, sadly, is the performance of its leading lady.
Witherspoon often handles determined-but-sugar-sweet roles with aplomb, as with “Legally Blonde” and as tough young matriarch June Carter in “Walk the Line.”
In this film, she simply does not grasp the character, and Marlena comes off more as a tragic heroine, not a tough lady in too deep. Perhaps that would have been serviceable in another film, but here, the character simply does not reflect the novel or the production well.
Another point of contention is the chemistry, or lack thereof, between Witherspoon and Pattinson’s Jacob.
Many factors are to blame for this, including the age difference, lack of suspense and the very simple truth that neither performance represents the greatest work of either artist, both of whom have proven their chops beautifully elsewhere.
The production quality of the film—the set and costume design—are beautiful and evocative, but they simply feed the emphasis on scenery rather than plot. More effort was probably spent in training the elephant to become an early twentieth-century circus performer than the actors.
A pretty-looking film is easier for a studio to market, but it certainly deterred from the focus of what could have been a great story.
Director Francis Lawrence has a history of crowd-pleasing action films like I Am Legend and Constantine on his resume, and he might have done better by trying to make another one rather than tackling this story. It’s like the camera records the sweeping moments of grandiose imagery rather than the nuances of character and time period, and the film suffers greatly from this perspective.
“Water for Elephants” had a lot of potential, but the filmmakers’ decision to heighten the soap opera elements of the novel, rather than the depth of character or the personality behind the glitz of the circus, makes what could have been a great film into a sub-par one.
Catching this on cable during a rainy afternoon is a better alternative to catching a $10 matinee.