Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review - Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen,06/15/2011, * * *

Bob and I went to see the movie version of this novel several months ago, and I completely fell in love with the story.  I loved it so much that I decided to read the book.  Usually that happens the other way around - I nearly always try to read the book before seeing the movie, but this time I made an exception.  Now I kinda wish I hadn't.

Here's the synopsis from Goodreads:
"Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out - orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive 'ship of fools'. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act - in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival."

My thoughts:
The reason that I wish I hadn't seen the movie first is, most unusually, that I actually liked the movie better than the book.  (I know, right?  You just did a double-take, didn't you?)  That almost never happens to me, but I'll say it again, I liked the movie better than the book.

Why?  Well, it's isn't because of the writing - the book is very well written and researched, and you can tell that the author spent a lot of time working on the details.  It fits together nicely, it flows, the pacing is good.  The characters are great, and there are characters in the book that weren't in the movie, so there were fascinating new characters to explore.   Rosie the Elephant is just as intriguing and wonderful and sweet in the book as she was in the movie.  I loved it all.  It was great.

So what is my damage, you ask?  In the movie, the story is narrated by an older version of the main character, Jacob Jankowski.  We see him briefly at the beginning and end of the story, (brilliantly played by Hal Holbrook), and hear his voice-over occasionally, and that's it.

In the book though, the older Jacob has nearly equal time, and his chapters ended up feeling really tedious as he complained about being old, and the nursing home, and his family, and on and on and on. I seriously wanted to skip his parts, they got so tedious and boring, and the older Jacob was not a likable character at all.  I get what the author was trying to do and the point she was trying to make but the problem is that these chapters interrupted the flow of the story so severely, stopping the action that is happening in the past and catapulting us into the present so abruptly that it was jarring, and made me not want to continue reading through those chapters.  Whereas the movie, by cutting out all the day to day living in the nursing home and fighting with the nurses, the naps and the meals, ended up with a tighter and better focused story, and ultimately a much more enjoyable story.

Now I honestly think that if I had read the book first, before I saw the movie, I probably would have enjoyed the book more, and still would have loved the movie every bit as much as I do now. I originally gave the book 4 stars on Goodreads, but I've changed it to 3 stars after thinking about it.  I would highly recommend that you both read the book and see the movie.

But I'd also recommend that you do it in that order.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!


  1. While it is a rare thing, sometimes the movie based on a novel is better.

    I remember feeling that way with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a wonderful writer, but at certain points the narrative dried up a little bit for me so I completely understand where you're coming from!

  2. @Carissa Hi Carissa! You are totally right - Tolkien is a perfect example of this exact situation.
    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I think everyone should read this book because this world of Circus Folk has never been written about like this. Gruen truly commits to her characters and does a nice job of balancing past and present. The present scenes are just as funny and entertaining as the flashbacks. It is definitely one of my favorites!