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Literature / Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants is a Historical Fiction Romance Novel written by Sara Gruen as a part of National Novel Writing Month about circus life in Depression-era America. It was first published on May 26, 2006.

When 23-year-old Jacob Jankowski's parents are killed in a car crash a week before he completes veterinary school at Cornell University, he finds himself left with nothing after he fails to reclaim his parents' property. In a moment of impulse, he skips out on his exams, runs out of town, and jumps on a train, unaware that it is the train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus. He soon makes a deal with circus owner and ringmaster Uncle Al to stay with the circus in exchange for becoming the circus veterinarian. Along the way, he gets to know August Rosenbluth (a charming, but sometimes violent animal trainer), his wife, Marlena (the star of the equestrian act whom Jacob falls in love with), and several other workers and performers. However, once the show acquires an elephant named Rosie, a complicated series of events occurs where Jacob soon learns of the circus' darker side, and struggles to find a way to leave the show without bringing harm and danger to himself or his new friends.

The narrative alternates between the perspective of 23-year-old Jacob with the circus, and 93-year-old Jacob at a nursing home, chafing against enforced inactivity and anticipating a visit to a present-day circus that has come to town.

The book was later adapted into a film starring Robert Pattinson as Jacob, Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, and Christoph Waltz as August. It was released in 2011 to modest success.

The book is also set to have another adaptation in the form of a Broadway musical, which will begin previews in February of 2024. Grant Gustin and Isabelle Mc Calla have been cast as Jacob and Marlena, respectively.

This work contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Karma: Blackie, the thug who's in charge of throwing people off the train, is a case of What Happened to the Mouse? in the book, but in the film, during the climax he's ambushed by some of Jacob's friends, who are last seen preparing to inflict either a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown or Killed Offscreen on him.
  • Alliterative Name: Jacob Jankowski.
  • All Part of the Show: When Rosie panics and runs off during a show while Marlena was riding her, Marlena ends up having to jump clear, hanging from a high rafter before dropping and landing square on her feet with a flourish. She ends up bruising her feet badly.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The book ends with Jacob leaving the old folks' home and running away with another circus.
  • Arranged Marriage: Marlena's parents are hovering on the edge of this with her, offering several different suitors before focusing on an old rich banker. She leaves before they can seal the deal.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Don't mention Ringling in front of Uncle Al.
    • Don't hurt Rosie unless you want Jacob to come after you.
  • Bullying a Dragon: August somehow thinks yelling at and hitting an elephant is a good idea. In the movie, he's heavily implied to have an emotional disorder, since he switches moods like lightning and can't seem to moderate it.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: Jacob walks in on Walter (aka Kinko) masturbating to a magazine, and Walter ends up getting back at him by orchestrating for Jacob to be humiliated by the circus' resident hooker. They end up friends, though.
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • In the movie, Rosie learns how to remove the stake from the ground to free herself so she can go over and steal some lemonade. At the end of the film, Rosie puts the same skill to use, removing the stake and slashing it across the back of August's neck, killing him.
    • Jacob says his prayers in Polish near the beginning and later we find that Rosie only understands Polish commands.
  • Composite Character: In The Film of the Book, the qualities of 'Uncle Al' the ringmaster are instead given to August, who is the ringmaster in the movie adaptation.
  • Conjoined Twins: Uncle Al goes on a hunt for a man with his infant brother's body sticking out of his chest, until he finds that Ringling Bros. have already snatched him up.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: August.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Walter. assuming he did die of his wounds, was left with four broken limbs after being thrown out of a train, and likely died of exposure.
  • Curse of The Ancients: Though Jacob certainly doesn't have a problem with normal cuss words, he and some others lets a few of these loose.
  • The Dog Bites Back:
    • After Camel and Walter got thrown off a train, several circus employees get fed up with August's abusive Bad Boss ways and decide to quit and leave... after releasing all the caged animals in the midst of a performance causing a circus disaster as a final "fuck you" to him.
    • Rosie kills August by striking him with the stake used to tie her, just as he's about to strangle Marlena to death.
  • Domestic Abuse: When August becomes jealous, he ends up giving Marlena a black eye in addition to verbal abuse.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Jacob gets extremely drunk at one point and is sexually humiliated by two of the circus hookers. What they do to him can definitely be considered sexual assault. Jacob wakes up the next morning with a painted face, shaved testicles, and having little idea what happened the night before, explicitly saying he "Didn't know if he was still a virgin..." This incident is mentioned few times after that.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: After Walter and Camel are thrown off the train, Jacob is at first panicked, then recalls the train wasn't moving very fast, starts to relax and is confident that he'll be able to backtrack and find them, using the trestle they'd passed by around that times a reference point for where to look, then he freezes, as he correctly begins to worry that they were thrown off as the train passed over that trestle.
  • The Great Depression: The setting of the book. Jacob is left penniless after his parents' death because the bank that contained their savings failed and his father, also a veterinarian, let the neighbors pay him in eggs and beans because they didn't have money and he couldn't bear to see animals suffer.
  • How We Got Here: The prologue gives the climax of the narrative, and then goes back to cover the events before that point.
  • Insane Equals Violent: August is an extremely fairweather person who is fully capable of appearing kind and charming one moment, then verbally abusing and beating the shit out of someone the next. Some of the characters describe his 'Paranoid Schizophrenia' to be a big contributor.
  • Kick the Dog: Or the elephant. The big indication that August is a bad guy despite frequently acting nice, is that he abuses the animals. And Marlena. Also, Uncle Al and Walter postponing feeding and watering animals they want to buy in hopes of getting a lower price.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The circus workers that were "red-lighted" (aka getting thrown off a moving train as punishment or as severance from the circus to avoid paying wages) eventually come back and cause the climactic circus disaster by releasing all the animals, and being a scattered group effort, none of the perpetrators get caught.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Subverted. Due to certain timing, Jacob isn't 100% certain (at first) that the child Marlena is carrying is his or August's. (He does assure that he would love and care for the child of his own no matter what.) His suspicions are relieved when the child is born and has his bright red hair.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Marlena plans a surprise dinner party for August, with Jacob helping set it up. August walks in and sees the two of them opening a bottle of champagne, jumping to the worst conclusion. The fact that Rosie The Elephant is also in the tent with them surprisingly does little to allay his suspicions.
  • Nested Story: A mild version: After the prologue, the story starts with 93-year-old Jacob in an old folks' home remembering the past, and it skips back and forth between his story at 23 years old and his story at 93 years old.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: When the circus goes bust at the end, Jacob manages to keep Rosie by pretending that she's too stupid to perform at a circus and can't do anything useful.
  • Once More, with Clarity: A murder is shown in the prologue, and then again near the end of the book. From the prologue the reader is clearly intended to infer that the murderer is Marlena; from the later scene we find out that it is in fact Rosie.
  • Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending: Jacob and Marlena marry and live happily together for decades; pretty much all the other major human characters die.
  • Repulsive Ringmaster: August was the circus' equestrian director in the book, whereas his Composite Character status in the film in which he's the circus' ringmaster instead of the Adapted Out Uncle Al (who also isn't that much of a nice guy) makes him this by default.
  • Senior Sleep-Cycle: Older Jacob a few times.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Bill, a character Adapted Out of the movie, who first is one of those who keeps Jacob from being thrown off the train by the circus roustabouts, and later is thrown off the train with Walter and Camel, survives, and leads those returning for revenge, which causes the climax.
  • Slut-Shaming: Most notable in the movie. August taunts Marlena and Jacob, forcing them to act out 'a performance for the show' where Jacob making a pass at Marlena, who resists, 'protecting her honor'. He then says, (essentially) "The audience will eat that right up, they won't see that you don't have any honor to lose..." He then repeatedly calls her a whore.
  • Surprise Pregnancy: Jacob and Marlena end up becoming 'secret lovers.' While there is a huge amount of conflict due to the fact that Marlena is married and her husband is jealous and violent, the book doesn't ignore the fact that they engage in unprotected sex several times and Marlena becomes pregnant because of this.
  • Title Drop:
    • In the retirement home, one of the other retirees begins to gather all sorts of attention and adoration for himself by telling everyone that he used to work in a circus, carrying water for elephants. This pisses Jacob off, partially because he worked for the circus in his younger years, and knows that elephants drink far too much water to make carrying it by hand practical.
    • In the movie, this is used when one of the performers jokingly suggests that they they give Jacob a job getting water for the elephants. It has a different explanation than the book, as it's an Impossible Task because they don't HAVE an elephant.
  • Tragic Dropout: Jacob finds out that his parents were killed right before his final exams of veterinary school. He's so distraught that he doesn't write them and later finds out that his parents left him no money because they spent everything they had to put him through school.
  • Tropey, Come Home: Walter goes into Heroic BSoD when he loses Queenie, his dog. Turns out August picked her up as the train was starting out, and Marlena gave her back later.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Discussed by Jacob and Rosemary in the retirement home: The man claiming to have worked for the circus obviously never did, but he isn't lying because he truly believes it is the truth. He's just too senile to remember his own history. It is also strongly implied that Jacob is similarly going senile and may not be entirely clear on his own past.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Redlighting", a term used to refer to throwing people off the train. Usually while crossing a bridge.
  • Yandere: August turns into this.

Alternative Title(s): Water For Elephants