Best-selling novel adaptations are a tricky business (exhibit A: too many subpar Stephen King movies). Compressing 300-plus pages into 120 minutes is all but impossible. So choices must be made. Which characters are cut and combined? What scenes are important? Are we using voiceover to connect with the characters' inner thoughts? And in larger books with copious subplots: what story are we telling and how do we do that while capturing the novel's essence?
These collective choices, in Hollywood development terms, are called "takes."
When one set of filmmakers (writers, producers, directors, studio executives, and everyone else involved creatively) adapts a novel -- their take -- to film, some (or many) are bound to be upset because their favorite scene/storyline/character was mutilated in the process. And yet, while it's important to embrace any fan base in the hopes that they too will love (read: pay money to see) your movie, it's more important to make a really good film that stands on its own without having to read the book(s).
For example, having read all the Harry Potter novels, I thought the last film was [explicative deleted] epic, but I have no idea how anyone who had not read the books understood those movies after (and including) 'Order of the Phoenix'. Or more importantly, how people related to the characters and rushed pacing. I'm off track a bit, but my point, as we analyze 'Water for Elephants' today, is to explore it as an adaptation as well as a stand-alone film.
Based on the New York Times best selling novel by Sara Gruen, 'Water for Elephants' is an exciting, romantic adventure about a young man who, on the precipice of having his whole life in order -- about to graduate from veterinarian school, start his new career, has loving parents, etc -- loses everything and, by chance, joins the circus. It's a depression-era American fable where the handsome young man (Robert Pattinson) falls for a beautiful girl (Reese Witherspoon) who rides horses and just so happens to be the wife of the violent, bi-polar circus owner (the amazing Christoph Waltz). The dramatic question at hand: is this budding romance possible and will it end in tragedy?
There's a lot to like about this film, directed by Francis Lawrence ('I Am Legend'; 'Constantine') and adapted by Richard LaGravenese ('Paris, Je T'Aime', 'The Fisher King'). It has a wonderful sense of period and wonder, which is perfect for a film that is told from a memory POV. Warm, saturated tones ease us into the nostalgic past, its welcoming colors a stark contrast to the tough lives of trying to survive in the 1930s. Kudos to Mr. Lawrence for taking a chance outside the genre pieces for which he's well known. The film looks marvelous thanks to the talents of production designer Jack Fisk and features another evocative score from James Newton Howard.
Like many adaptations of long novels, some moments move a little too quickly for their own good (in rushing from scene to scene, it's harder for the emotions to land), however this is a generally strong adaptation. The feeling of reading the book is here and, as a movie, the story stands on its own.
Next, let's talk about Christoph Waltz ('Inglorious Basterds') and Hal Holbrook ('Into the Wild', 'Sons of Anarchy'), who plays older Robert Pattinson in the film's present day bookends. Mr. Waltz is a stunning, magical performer with an uncanny ability to be charming and terrifying in the same breath. Great films need great villains and Waltz is one serious, complex baddy. Still, Hal Holbrook may be the best part about the film. His brief appearances are so resonant and brimming with hope and sadness, it's too bad he wasn't allowed to narrate the entire film. And let us not forget about the film's largest actor, Tai, who plays Rosie the Elephant. The director and her animal trainer worked in tandem to pull what looks like human emotion out of this gentle giant and every frame of her performance is captivating.
Honestly, were it not for these two fine actors and one very talented elephant, I may not have liked 'Water for Elephants' at all. This, of course, brings us to Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Pattinson. Honestly, they seem miscast. I'm not sure if it’s the film overall (some people just don't feel authentic in period pieces), or if it's their lack of chemistry, an issue mentioned in countless reviews. In a movie like this, I think we're all supposed to fall is love with Ms. Witherspoon, and I'm not sure we spent enough time with her to see why she was worth so much risk. Admittedly, this might once again be an issue of the rushed plotting; perhaps this 120-minute film should have been longer?
As for Pattinson, I know a lot of people rag on him for his 'Twilight' performances. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt here and, generally, he's pretty good. Charming in the opening scenes, and I really felt for him when he was forced out on the rails. But, and this might not be his fault, he's given very little to do in the story. He spends the majority of his screen time listening to, or watching, his fantastic co-stars who have all the lines. Most damning, the other characters have all the action. As a lead character, Pattinson isn't afforded much to push the story forward, and it's a little tiring. After an hour or so, I want him to DO something -- anything -- and actually interact with all the wonderful character actors around him. As executed, he is like a passenger in his own story. To be fair, he's our eyes into the world because he's the new guy in circus land, but I found it hard to connect with him.
'Water for Elephants' is a fine adaptation and a good film overall (despite one scene where Pattinson and Witherspoon hide from the police in a completely not-hidden storage area -- that was silly), but I have the feeling it could have been as great as the book were it not for the rushed emotions and the passive main character.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox brings 'Water for Elephants' to Blu-ray in a two disc edition, featuring one Region-A locked BD50 and a DVD for the Digital Copy. Skippable trailers include an ad for Digital Copy, 'The Descendents', and 'Snowflower and the Secret Fan. Like many Fox discs, when you pup the BD in a second time, it asks if you want to resume playback, allowing you to bypass repeat trailer viewings.
While there are some minor flaws in terms some black level grayness and/or crushing as well as occasional soft shot or two, 'Water for Elephants' sports a very successful MPEG-4 AVC encode (aspect ratio 2.35:1) that shows no signs of encoding artifacts or compressions issues.
Let's get the bad out of the way up front for a change, because there's very little to nitpick. There is some black crushing from time to time (evident in the opening's interior trailer scene where eyes disappear into shadow in a bright room), but the larger black level issue seems to be a persistent grayness in the background of many night time scenes, leaving them a tad flat. Also, there seems to be some unintended focus issues as actors move forwards and backwards in random shot.
Though a few nitpicks prevent this from being perfect, as I said before, 'Water for Elephant's generally looks great. Period pieces with warm, saturated colors do well in high definition and, as we expect from brand new movies, there are no age issues, damage, or dirt to blemish the picture. Detail and resolution are strong, highlighting the authentic exterior and interior production design elements as well as clothing, animal skins, hair, and human faces. Everything is so dreamlike and vibrant, but never completely over the top and unnatural. And despite what I said about black levels above, the film's first few night exterior shots are exceptional -- set on a rainy night, where actors are wearing black jackets against a black night sky. Overall, this is another fine Blu-ray release from the folks at Fox.
'Water for Elephant's arrives on Blu-ray with a well made, but just shy of spectacular, English 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
Dialog is perfect and the film features a wide front soundstage with an enveloping ambience from the rears. Rain, crowds, and creaking train cars fill the rear channels to build out the world. LFE runs deep, filling your home theatre with rumbling animal noises and train engines, etc. What's particular nice about the bass tones is that they are purely supportive, and never call attention to themselves (something I've noticed with some lossy surround sound television mixes of late). James Newtown Howard's score might not be as amazing as his work in 'Road to Perdition', but it soars in surround sound. Overall, there's very little to complain about in 'Water for Elephant'. It's a very good track that supports the film experience, but personally I reserve my 5 star audio ratings for more aggressive sonic experiences
Other audio options include Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and French 5.1 Dolby Digital. For those who like to or need to read their movies, there are English SDH and Spanish subtitles available.
Including the commentary and Blu-ray exclusives, there are over 3 hours of bonus materials on 'Water for Elephants'. Thanks to the HD Exclusives (see below), this is a fine collection of behind the scenes documentaries, which are all in high definition picture and stereo sound.
'Water for Elephants' is, in my humblest opinion, a good film, but it's not a great one because I wasn't able to connect with the love story between the two lead characters. However, this quality adaptation looks marvelous in high definition, sounds wonderful, and features terrific performances from Christoph Walz and other character actors. Definitely not a must buy for those who have not seen the film or even fans of the book. I would say give it a rent first.