Did Stephen Holden of the NYTimes Read/See The Same Water for Elephants?

Last week I suggested you read Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen then see the movie.  I had read the book then happened to read Stephen Holden’s New York Times review  of the movie before I went to the theater.  I came away from the movie asking myself if Holden read the same book and saw the same movie I did?  I also ask, did he have a bad day on April 22 when the review was posted?

All of us who love books have read and enjoyed a wide variety of authors ranging from great novels, memoirs , to non-fiction and biographies.  Books have vastly different appeal to different audiences. However, for Holden to call Gruen’s work Water for Elephants a lightweight page-turner  is a travesty.  Certainly the work may not be of the calibre of Gone with the Wind, Grapes of Wrath  or For Whom the Bell Tolls but neither are many books that are great reads! 

When I read Holden’s overly negative review of the movie Water for Elephants my enthusiasm  for seeing the picture was diminished. However, when I left the theater I realized Holden was wrong on all counts! 

Water for Elephants the movie  did in fact capture Gruen’s book, certainly not in every detail, but a film seldom does.  Contrary to Holden’s view, the nitty-gritty and cruelty of the world of a traveling circus was abundant, as was the  survival instinct of a circus family.  Hal Holbrook as narrator did in fact place the movie in perspective and drove home the book’s message that at the end of the day, good or bad, the circus, Marlena and Rosie was the only family that Jacob had!  I only regret that time on the screen did not allow further development of the aged Jacob in the nursing home prior to the circus’ arrival in town, thus opening the flashback with  even greater impact.

Before putting a wrap on this I must express my amazement at Holden’s  comment  that the love scene between Marlena and Jacob was disappointing because is was “dimly lighted!”   In retrospect that remark  revealed that Holden missed it all, the book, the movie and the message.

Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson played extremely well both individually and in their roles together.  Surely the characters  we create in our minds from a book can never be totally replicated on-screen but that is why people read books! Despite Stephen Holden’s view,  I think Witherspoon did create an authentic period character and to suggest she was directed to do otherwise is foolishness!

If you have read  Water for Elephants you will enjoy the movie even more but see it whether you have read the book or not.   Don’t believe a word  of Stephen’s Holden’s review. I think he had a bad day and took it out on an enjoyable ” good read ” and a movie that did an admirable job with Sara Gruen’s novel.


Did Sara Gruen, author of  the novel Water for Elephants, grow up in a circus family?  Was she an equestrian center ring star or a master trainer of elephants?  Did she and the other members or her family leave her father largely alone with his memories in a  “respectable nursing home?”  The answer to all of the previous questions is no!

How then did Sara Gruen create two marvelous parallel stories packed with  the intricate details and broad panorama of a Great Depression era travelling circus and the daily routine of a ninety-three year-old man spending his last days reminiscing in a nursing home?  My observation is that Gruen has a vivid imagination, wonderful story telling skills, and sought out the correct research to bring realistic detail to the story.

After devouring this book ( that is what you will likely do)  I think you will agree that there is little wonder why it has been on the New York Times Trade Fiction Best Seller List for 111 weeks!

I don’t know which story I like better. Is it Jacob in his old age making every effort to maintain his dignity and self-esteem? Or is it Jacob the young would-be-veterinarian out of Cornell before graduating , running away from  a family tragedy and in the dead of night hopping a circus train ? Is it the beautiful young Marlena the equestrian circus star stuck in a hopelessly abusive marriage?  Is it Rosie, an elephant that only understands Polish that becomes the glue in a love story?  Is it the collection of humanity that populates a travelling circus stuck in a daily struggle for survival?

I wonder if the up-coming movie can possibly create the color, smells, smiles, sadness, humanity and empathy that Sara Gruen has done so beautifully in WATER for ELEPHANTS.  I hope so. I will be there but I am sure glad I read the book first!

One final thought, buy WATER for ELEPHANTS in hardcover. It will stand the test of time in your library!