My sister and I once paid a visit to the zoo and after wandering around, wound up sitting for about an hour in front of the tiger cage, watching the occupant pace back and forth. We were quite most of the time and then, quietly, I said, “I don’t think I like zoos.”
“Neither do I,” she answered sadly.
I’ve always been a bit sensitive to animal stories, and it must run in the family because both my sisters are the exact same way. None of us could stand Old Yeller, and if you ask me, that’s a right rotten movie to show a kid, along with Bambie. Honestly, what was Disney trying to do in those days, raise an entire generation of mentally scarred children? Some of that trepidation accompanied me into Water for Elephants, because I knew the basic plot and also that it carries a theme of animal abuse in circuses. In the same way that I dislike zoos, I also dislike circuses — because I never look at an animal in a tiny cage and marvel at being up close, I’m sad that he is shut into such a small space. But like the traumas of many other animal stories (why do they always have to die? what is wrong with screenwriters these days?), this one has a happier outcome than most. The novelist said, of the crux of the film, that she felt it was appropriate for Rosie to avenge all the elephants that had been mistreated in circuses — and it’s an apt conclusion to a touching story.
Now, I did not read the book — about the time I ran into a blunt sentence about slitting a horse’s throat and letting it bleed out, I was done. Given that I had seen the movie, I knew what else was coming and for me, made the right decision in not reading the novel. I read enough, however, to see that the film adaptation more than does it justice… but with more sensitivity, which an animal lover like me appreciates. But I am in awe of the sheer amount of research and authenticity that went into the book and also the film… details about circuses during the Great Depression that give a real sense of authenticity to the era and the characters. One doesn’t realize the scope of this research and character development on screen until you sit through the special features and come to realize how all these little details and choices from the collaborators bring to life a remarkably “period” film. In part, it is the unusual setting more than anything else that makes me love this film — not because of its romance so much as the notion that in watching it, for awhile, we are all running away with the circus. Its themes are universal, the eternal question of right and wrong, of good and evil, and it does a masterful job in contrasting the abuse of men with the abuse of animals. I love the fact that its emphasis is not entirely on animals, but also on the value of human beings — if August does not hesitate in throwing a man off a moving train, why would he show any kindness to one of God’s innocent creatures?
On screen at least, the character of August is incredibly realistic — his rapid mood swings, his periods of violent rage followed by depths-of-despair begging for forgiveness, are classic symptoms of domestic abuse. Often movies that involve this tragic plot line fail to bring out the two sides of a man’s personality, opting to make him brutal without adding in his remorse and penitent behavior afterward. Our introduction to him is charming, as a likable and good-natured man who then takes a far more cruel shift when Jacob first disobeys him; bit by bit, we see the true August — and it is more than desperation or fear that they cannot survive, it is just inborn cruelty. The littler things evolve into much larger ones so that in the end, Rosie’s action is more than justified, but celebrated as a form of justice in which none of the other leading characters must dirty their hands. When watching this in the theater, that earned the biggest reaction from the crowd, as we all let out a collective sigh of relief. (It must be human nature to want to see bad people “get theirs” — if I were to get philosophical, I would say it is an inborn spiritual trait that responds to the nature of God as a purveyor of Justice — but I’m not philosophical today, so read into it what you will.
Normally stories that contain an adulterous love affair are not my thing (in fact, I’m rather inclined to find the participants selfish and root against them), but I like the fact that this romance illustrates the profound struggle between our human desire to sin and our knowledge of what is right — both people fight against it and try to remain apart, but their choices inevitably bring them together. Jacob remarks at one point that he has tried to convince himself that he has stayed to protect Marlena but admits that he wonders if he is more of a danger to her than her husband is. Dismissing their eventual compromise, he is a reasonably good man for a godless one — compassionate to men and animals, and selfless in wanting Marlena to be safe and have a good life, whether or not it is with him. I get a bit teary at the end when he is reflecting on their life together and the happiness they managed to find. I do not approve of their relationship and how it began (I honestly think it would have been more touching if they hadn’t slept together — but unfortunately, most writers don’t know how to write a believable romance these days, so resort to the assumption that the audience will equate sex with love) but it does not ruin the experience for me.
One of the more profound elements of the story for me is the feeling of sadness that accompanies growing old and being forgotten by loved ones. That is one thing I remember about the book, its descriptions of the nursing home and Jacob’s frustration in being there. Movies like this, that connect the young, romantic individuals with their much older counterparts, serve to remind us that every old person has a life story — they were once young, full of ambitions and hopes and dreams, and just because their eyesight is going doesn’t mean they are not still important, valuable members of society.
Though there are times in this film in which I flinch or tear up, ultimately I find it very touching. I don’t know why, but it works for me.