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Cinema in Focus: ‘Water for Elephants’ Brings Award-Winning Novel to Life

Film depicts the common problem of spousal abuse set in the uncommon world of the circus

3 Stars — Troubling

The award-winning novel by Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants, has been brought to the screen by director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend).

Adapted by Richard LaGravenese, the film varies slightly from the novel, but the romantic tale is both moving and troubling. The struggle of spousal abuse remains a central part of the tale, though the resolution is changed.

The central character of the tale is Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson). As an older man, he comes to a circus and begins to share the tale of his life to the circus manager. We are taken back almost 60 years, to the Great Depression and the beginning of Jacob’s adult life.

Jacob is the son of Polish immigrants who have sacrificed greatly to put him through Cornell University’s veterinary school in 1931. Just as he is taking his final exam to become a licensed practitioner, he is informed of his parents’ accidental deaths. Discovering that they had mortgaged their home and business to put him through school, Jacob soon realizes he has lost everything. Desperate, he hits the roads.

Walking until he is exhausted, he jumps on a passing train. It happens to be a circus train. He reflects that he “doesn’t know if he chose the train or the train chose him,” which often seems true of significant moments in which our lives are forever changed. Jacob’s veterinary skill is greatly needed to care for the animals of the circus, and soon, his heart is taken by the beautiful wife of the brutal circus owner.

Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) had been abandoned as a child and raised in the foster-care system where her beauty only made her a victim. But when the circus came through town, August (Christopher Waltz) invited her to join his circus and his life. Wed at age 19, Marlena had learned to manage August’s temper just as she had learned to calm the animals with which she performed her circus act.

When August buys Rosie, a performing elephant from a defunct circus, he asks Jacob to become her trainer and help Marlena create an act. Serendipitously discovering the secret that released Rosie’s abilities, Jacob and Marlena also become bonded as they both try to protect Rosie from August’s brutality. It is the same brutality that he has acted out against Marlena, as well as countless others.

We won’t share any more of the story, but the film clearly shows the impact of a violent man, both in his home and in his work. Violence undermines everything in a relationship. In the novel, August is a paranoid schizophrenic, but in the film he is a person with an anger addiction. Either way, the effect of his violence is to keep him from intimacy in his marriage and success in his business.

Water for Elephants is a well-developed tale of the all-too-common problem of spousal abuse set in the uncommon world of the circus. Both are exposed in new and helpful ways.


» The final result of August’s violent way of running the circus creates an ironic justice. Do you believe such a result is true to life?

» The lifelong impact of this one year in Jacob’s life is obvious. Is there a single year in your own life that changed everything for you? In what ways did it change everything?

» It’s difficult to know just what to do when we see a spouse being violent with his or her wife or husband. What do you do, and when do you do it?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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