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An early look at 'Water for Elephants'

December 20, 2010 |  1:12 pm

Sara Gruen's bestselling "Water for Elephants," a love triangle set in a 1930s circus, is coming to the big screen. Although it's not due in theaters until mid-April, the trailer is already out. Though there's nothing wrong with watching it on a computer, it looks really fantastic projected in a movie theater (at least it did at the ArcLight, where I saw it this past weekend).

The film stars Reese Witherspoon as a circus starlet, Robert Pattinson (famous for appearing in another literary adaptation) as the young veterinarian taken by her, and Christoph Waltz as her husband. Waltz won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role in "Inglorious Basterds," and Witherspoon got a best actress Oscar for 2005's "Walk the Line," so there's a good chance their performances will be strong. Some people aren't as sure about Pattinson, whose appearance in the trailer is almost completely devoid of dialog. "It's nearly impossible to judge from the trailer if Pattinson has any acting skills beyond that longing gaze thing," writes our blog 24 Frames.

"Water for Elephants" was Gruen's first historical novel. "I did all the research ahead of time," she told Powell's Books in an interview. "I needed to feel that I knew the subject matter in and out." She did research into circuses, into various cultural sidelines of the 1930s, and into elephants themselves:

I got into the habit of walking up to elephant handlers at the circus and saying, "Hi. I'm writing a book. May I meet your elephant?" I got lucky twice.

The first time was right after I'd been out with this elephant handler at the Kansas City Zoo who had been gored by an elephant. He took a tusk through the thigh, one through the rib cage, which just missed everything vital, and another through his upper arm. So I still had that in mind. I was standing beside this huge thing with his amber eye staring down at me. The guy said, "Go ahead. You can touch her." I was shaking, but I touched her. I said, "Okay, I'm done now."

Several months later, I met the second one. It was one of these little circuses that throws a tent up and says, "Free tickets!" And then it's twenty-dollar popcorn. I snuck out of the big top because it was small and pretty cheesy, but during the show I asked to meet the elephant; the handler gave me a bucket of peanuts and stuck me in an enclosure with this thing. He shut the gate. I was alone with this African elephant. I was looking at her, and she was looking at me like, This is not part of the usual repertoire. So I fed her the peanuts. By the end of it, she was such a love bug. I was hugging her and kissing her, posing for photos. She gave me a kiss, a big, sock puppet, mushy elephant kiss with the end of her trunk. It was really memorable.

Appearing in the film as the current-era, older version of Pattinson is the always-watchable Hal Holbrook. "I like to write flawed characters. I take a warts-and-all approach to everyone," Gruen said. "People, for some reason, are more forgiving of my older, warty characters, but my 30- and 40-year-old characters are just as warty if you look at them closely."

Gruen's latest novel, "Ape House," came out in September. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg