Water for Elephants – Movie Review

Water for Elephants – Movie Review

Review by Stacey Tuttle

As I look through the notes I jotted down while watching Water for Elephants, I definitely see a recurring theme about illusion.  The movie centers around a circus and a circus is all about illusion and appearance, from the “freak shows” to the magic acts to the clowns who put on happy faces but aren’t necessarily smiling on the inside at all.  But what does it matter if a clown is really happy inside, so long as he has a smile painted on, right?  This theme of illusion and disillusionment is not just found in the circus, but also throughout relationships and business dealings and so forth.  I would maybe even say that the point of the movie is finding truth in the midst of a world of illusion—chiefly truth in love, and trusting that. 

But, as I think about the movie, despite the pervasiveness of that theme, illusion/disillusionment is not what I find myself thinking about.   I find myself thinking about this one, small, glorious moment with Rosie the elephant. 

It’s the depression.  It’s a hard time to keep a circus surviving.  August, the owner of the circus, is doing all he can to keep things afloat, even tossing crew members off the train in the middle of the night when he can’t afford to pay them (if that gives you any idea of the kind of man he is).  He needs a star act to draw in the crowds and in a last ditch effort, he sinks all his money into Rosie the elephant, the must-be-savior of the circus. And he commissions Jacob, the circus veterinarian, to be her handler. 

Not only does Jacob not know anything about Rosie, but he doesn’t know anything about elephants at all.  But Jacob does know a thing or two about relationships.  His approach to both people and animals is one of kindness and patience, love and tenderness.  Quite the opposite of August who is all about coercion, intimidation, force, and fear.   

August doesn’t feel that Jacob is getting results with Rosie fast enough.  He must have a performing elephant and there is no time to delay.  So August jumps in to show Jacob how it is done…poking and prodding Rosie, jabbing her with an elephant handling stick so hard that she is cut and bleeding all over.  He is so reckless with his force that he causes an accident which is nearly the death of his wife. 

When Rosie doesn’t immediately “get” what August is asking her do, demanding her to do, August assumes the animal must be stupid.  While Jacob doesn’t come to that conclusion, he is still at a loss as how to how to get Rosie to perform.

The moment of breakthrough comes when Jacob, who is of Polish decent, thoughtlessly utters a word in Polish…and Rosie responds. 

Rosie wasn’t stupid.  She wasn’t stubborn.  She wasn’t unwilling.  She wasn’t contrary in anyway.  She was simply Polish!  Rosie wasn’t performing and doing what was asked only because she didn’t understand what anyone was asking. 

Jacob tried a few more words, basic commands, and instantly Rosie did everything he asked.  Rosie was not only well-trained, but she was fairly brilliant.  Not only that, but what appeared to be stubbornness was actually great forbearance and patience on her part.  Rosie wasn’t the ignorant one, her handlers were.  A lesser animal would have retaliated against August’s brutality.  Rosie’s nature was remarkably generous.

Jacob gave August a list of Polish commands at which point August ceased his abuse of Rosie, pleased to have his performing elephant at last.

That scene is convicting to me.  How many times have I been frustrated with someone else?  How many times have I been annoyed or even angered that they didn’t perform or respond in the way I felt they should have?  How many times have I tried to use some measure of force to get my point across, speaking louder, getting cross, doing it for them because I though they were “too ignorant” to do it themselves? 

How many times have I later found out that they issue wasn’t their ability, or their heart or their willingness, but that the real issue was a matter of language?  They didn’t understand what I wanted.  Had I simply been able to put it in a manner they could understand, I might have found they were every bit as capable and willing as Rosie. 

What about you, have you had an experience like that?  Maybe it was with someone who was younger, or maybe it was someone who was older?  Maybe it was a co-worker, a student, a person of the opposite sex or someone who literally spoke another language?

This is why books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus are written—because men and women really do not speak the same language. 

This is why Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages is so revolutionary for so many people in their relationships.  Because not only do men and women not speak the same language, but people in general are often not speaking the same language.  He says that there are five languages that people use to communicate love:  physical touch, quality time, acts of service, receiving/giving gifts, and words of affirmation.  So, you may be giving lots of gifts to someone you care about, because that’s your love language, while they feel completely unappreciated because you never say how much you care about them.  Their love language is words of affirmation, and your gifts are about as effective as speaking English to a Polish elephant! 

What if you are in a position where you have to teach?  Whether you are a mother, a teacher, a trainer or manager or work…at some point most of us, whether or not we consider ourselves teachers, will have to teach someone something, and will need them to be able to perform it to some degree of proficiency. 

Jacob was not an elephant trainer/teacher.  But he still had to find a way to teach Rosie to perform.  The key was in the language.  If you watch any movie about a great teacher, you will find the same thing.  They finally reached the hearts of the children when they learned to speak their language.  What is it that motivates them?  What is it they care about?  Sometimes it’s explaining how geometry relates to basketball, or putting fractions in terms of baseball stats. Sometimes it’s showing someone that you truly care and/or that you believe in them.  You get the idea.

How many rifts, disagreements, and hurt feelings could be assuaged if we only knew the right language to speak to one another?  How many times are we no better than August, bludgeoning each other with force and frustration simply because we don’t know how else to communicate?  How many times have you or I assumed someone else was dumb because they didn’t speak our language, literally or figuratively? 

Here is what strikes me though.  Love is the universal language (although, as I mentioned, even love has its own dialects, so to speak).  It is no surprise to me that Jacob was the one to finally find the right language to communicate with Rosie.  August wasn’t likely to find it, he wasn’t looking for it.  He was only interested in using the one language he knew: force.  If he used enough of it, surely Rosie would finally understand it.  Jacob was different.  Jacob was already kind and caring and attentive.  Jacob was listening, searching, trying to find the key to unlock the mysteries he was sure were deep inside of Rosie.  It was because he loved Rosie that he was able to find her language. 

Finding someone’s love language begins with love, not language.  You have to love enough to find the right language.  It takes patience, listening, searching, caring.  And when you do, you may be amazed to find that a big, dumb elephant is transformed into an intelligent, responsive, vibrant being. 

Questions for Discussion:

  • What relationships in your life are struggling?  Could it be that at the heart of the problem is an issue of language?
  •  What is your love language(s)?
  • What are the love languages of those closest to you?  Do you know them well-enough to say?
  • Have you ever had a “Rosie” in your life—some one or thing which you couldn’t seem to communicate with?  What was the key (like discovering Rosie only understood Polish) that finally changed that relationship for you?
  • If you are really honest with yourself, when you come up against a “Rosie,” are you more likely to respond like Jacob or August?