Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: abuse, neglect, runaways, death.

Goodreads Rating: 4 Stars


It’s been over 10 years since this book was released and became a bestseller, and six years since the movie came out… so I guess you can say I’m a little late to the party, but I’m all caught up on what the fuss was all about. So I’ve decided to do a summary and a movie comparison, just to refresh your memory and preserve mine.

At age ninety (or ninety three, he can’t remember), life in the nursing home is something Jacob Jankowski just can’t get used to. He’s sick of the boredom, of the geriatric food, of the overly cautious nurses. When the circus rolls through town and excitement buzzes around him, Jacob starts to reflect on the early years of his life…

After the tragic loss of his parents the week before his final veterinary exams, Jacob decides to run away to restart anew. What he didn’t realize at first was that the train he decided to jump belonged to the property of Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth- a circus train. A man named Camel initiates Jacob to circus life and sets him up to be introduced to Big Al, the circus ringleader. Upon hearing that Jacob (almost, though technicalities didn’t matter in the circus business) had a Cornell veterinary degree, Big Al places Jacob with his right hand man August, the equestrian director and superintendent of animals, as the menagerie veterinarian, and bunks him with clown Kinko, aka Walter, and his dog Queenie. Kinko isn’t too happy about the idea, and he and Jacob don’t make friends too quickly, but eventually after Jacob has a few rough first days they make amends.

Under August’s wing, Jacob starts his new job by evaluating Marlena’s horse. She is a performer (aka kinker) with a string of horses, a star attraction, and so happens to be August’s wife. Jacob is smitten the first time he sets eyes on her, but knows not to show it. After he diagnoses Silver Star, he learns pretty quickly not to trust August. He finds out he’s a temperamental man who lacks sympathy for both humans and animals alike, and he’ll take whatever means necessary to keep control of those around him. So when the circus manages to pick up an elephant names Rosie, Jacob finds himself playing middle man to protect her, and Marlena, from August.

Image result for Water for Elephants

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

As Marlena and Jacob grow closer, August becomes more and more overprotective, and soon Jacob’s life is being threatened. At the same time, many of the workers in the circus are becoming unsettled, unpaid, and ready for an uproar. As things come to a head under the big top, even the animals start picking sides.

Movie Comparison

Now, in comparison to the movie, the book has more depth, character development, and in my opinion, more action…so it’s easy for me to say it was better than the movie. Here’s what was missing or different:

  1. Movie Elderly Jacob does NOT look ninety, nor is his mobility a struggle.
  2. Big Al isn’t mentioned in the movie. August is portrayed as the ringleader instead.
  3. The diagnosis and demise of Silver Star is much quicker in the movie, and Marlena’s character development is cut short, effecting what should be growth in the relationship with Jacob. The book allows for this growth and development.
  4. Rosie’s introduction in the movie is close enough to the book, but her character development and relationship with Jacob is cut short, making her participation in the climax of the movie less believable and dramatic.
  5. The big fight between August and Jacob, and the consequent break-up of August and Marlena largely differs in the movie. The movie makes it seem that after the fight, both Jacob and Marlena plan to run away to Ringling (the circus in competition with Benzini), that they knew then and there that they were going to be together. But in the book, Marlena knows she has to go back to the circus and August, and even after their tryst reminds Jacob that they can’t be together since she’s married.
  6. In the book, when Jacob returns to the circus after the fight between him and August, he talks to Big Al and says that Marlena will reconcile with August if she’s given space and time. Big Al buys the lie, and this allows some time for Jacob and Walter to get Camel to Providence, to be picked up by his family. But after a few weeks, Big Al becomes unconvinced and figured out that Jacob is actually working against him. This is when Jacob’s life becomes threatened, as well as the lives of Walter and Camel. This B-story is mostly ignored or skipped over in the movie.
  7. Book Jacob, after his conscience catches up to him, leaves the knife on a pillow on the empty side of the bed beside August. In the movie, Marlena is in the bed with August and sees Jacob’s attempted murder and retreat. When Jacob returns to the car that he shared with Walter and Camel, he realizes they’ve been red-lighted on August and Big Al’s orders, and feels guilty for taking Walter’s knife when it could have protected them.
  8. In the book, Jacob tells a workman he trusts about the red-lighting, and then relays it to Marlena, who also confesses that she’s pregnant. Finally admitting it to herself, she know that if she wants to be with Jacob, they have to run for it. The red-lighting is the catalyst for the chaos and the pregnancy is the final push for the relationship between Jacob and Marlena, and it’s downplayed in the movie in comparison to the book.
  9. The final scene in the movie shows Elderly Jacob complaining about how his oldest son, Walter, should have picked him up at the nursing home and brought him to the circus, and then asking if the guy was going to hire him into the circus. This made me so annoyed because in the book, the guy who Elderly Jacob is telling his story to is really empathetic to Jacob, and when the cops come looking for the elderly runaway, the guy covers for Jacob, telling the cops that the elderly was his father. Once the cops leave, Jacob broaches the subject of coming back to the circus because he knows the man understands that the circus felt more like home than the nursing home ever did. And for the love of God, the son’s name is Simon, not Walter.

So as I said, I know I’m behind the times, but I had this book in a pile that I just hadn’t gotten around to reading and I’m glad I picked it up. Definitely worth the read, but in my opinion, if you read the book, don’t bother with the DVD. Leaving out so much of the character development and details, the movie didn’t do the book justice when I feel they could have. I would have watched the movie for another hour if they could have added those developments and details back in.

TL/DR: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a novel about an elderly man recalling the days he spent in a traveling circus and the events that happened. Overall it’s a love story between main characters Jacob and Marlena.

Read it? Yes! The book is WAY better than the movie.

Recommend it? Yes- it’s a sweet love story that pretty much anyone would enjoy.

Buy it? It’s usually pretty easy to find secondhand copies of this novel, since it was a bestseller, so I would say buy it.

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