If you’ve been to the movies recently you might have seen a coming attraction for Water for Elephants, the film adaptation of the book of the same name by Sara Gruen.
It’s a beautiful, evocative book. I won’t give away any important plot details for those who might not have read the book, but I do need to bring to your attention some basic parts of the story:
The protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, runs away to join a traveling circus in the 1930s. He falls in love with a bareback equestrian rider. The circus, Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, is far from an elite organization. It hovers on the brink of financial ruin. Benzini Brothers is always battling competitors. Rosie the elephant saves it from financial distress after the star animal attraction, a horse, dies. Rosie never before performed in a circus.
I’m always fascinated by the creative process. In interviews, Gruen claims to have been inspired to write her 2006 novel by pictures of old time circuses she saw in a newspaper.
Sounds plausible, but several months ago I saw Chad Hanna, a 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda. The protagonist, Chad Hanna, runs away to join a traveling circus in the mid-1800s. He falls in love with a bareback equestrian rider. The circus, Huguenine’s Great and Only International Circus, is far from an elite organization. It hovers on the brink of financial ruin. Huguenine’s is always battling competitors. Van Buren the elephant saves it from financial distress after the star animal attraction, a lion, dies. Van Buren never before performed in a circus.
There are, of course, differences in the full plot line, in the love story, in the depiction of life within the circus coterie of characters. The circus owners in both stories couldn’t be more diametrically opposite.
My friend and former art director Milton says there are no new story lines, just different treatments of the same themes. I wouldn’t argue with that.
(PS—Chad Hanna is based on a series of articles in The Saturday Evening Post entitled Red Wheels Rolling by Walter D. Edmonds. Edmonds also wrote Drums Along the Mohawk, another book made into a movie starring Henry Fonda.)