The bright, infectiously enthusiastic Sara Gruen couldn’t be further from the seedy circus subculture portrayed in Water for Elephants, her blockbuster novel that’s getting the Hollywood treatment in an eagerly anticipated new movie.
The story of Jacob Jankowski, an orphaned veterinary student who runs away with the circus and falls in love with sequined star Marlena, thrums with tension and violence, and odd unexpected moments of kindness and unsentimental love, too. The book’s scope and bittersweet atmosphere made it a natural for a feature film adaptation, and the project landed a top-notch cast, including stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. The movie opens in theaters around the world on April 22.
Water for Elephants, which has sold more than 4 million copies to date, was a surprise hit by a little-known author when it was first published in 2006. As excitement for the movie builds, sales of the book are skyrocketing once again, with more than 800,000 copies shipped by publisher Algonquin within the last month.
“It was a very visual experience to write,” Gruen says of the novel. “Strangely, it felt like I was watching a movie. I get to a place where I don’t feel like I’m creating, but recording and capturing it. I’m smelling and hearing all of these things. I feel physically there.”
“If I’m going to spend eight hours a day in a fictional world, I would like to have an animal there as well.”
“My biggest fear as a writer is boring my readers,” Gruen says. “One of my philosophies as a novelist is to ratchet up the tension wherever possible.”
The story is packed with tension and contrasts, from the central love story of Jacob and the married Marlena and their deep connection with abused circus animals, to the camaraderie of a desperate band of strangers doing dirty and often undignified and difficult circus work.
“It was a very fraught time,” Gruen says of the early 20th-century traveling circuses. Both humans and animals were pushed to their limits to sell more tickets and line the pockets of the circus owners. The story features a pachyderm heroine named Rosie and other nameless and victimized animals that act as a kind of wordless Greek chorus to the events happening under the canvas.
Growing up in Canada, Gruen hadn’t even been to a circus before researching the book, but its details feel utterly authentic, especially the human-animal interactions.
“Animals play such an important role in my real world,” says Gruen, who is active in rescue efforts and lives with horses, dogs, cats and other creatures—along with her husband and children—in North Carolina. “If I’m going to spend eight hours a day in a fictional world, I would like to have an animal there as well.”
Despite the sometimes ugly history of circus animals, Gruen made sure that their filmic counterparts were treated well when she signed the movie contract. A stampede and other crucial scenes were produced with a green screen in the film, Gruen says, and she made sure that American Humane Society guidelines were followed on set. She insisted that no apes were used, since they suffer the most from being used in the entertainment industry, according to Gruen (whose most recent novel, Ape House, portrays a fictional ape laboratory).
Gruen and her entire family have cameos in the movie. Her big moment comes when Robert Pattinson (as Jacob) brushes past her during a tense scene with a runaway circus animal. “I’m the astonished woman watching an elephant [Rosie] steal produce!” she says.
Grateful for her “once in a lifetime experience” of spending a few days on a Hollywood set, Gruen was also “absolutely blown away” by the “fabulous” script for the film, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard LaGravenese.
“He combined a few scenes and combined a few characters and it works,” Gruen says. “There are places where it veers away from the book, but then it comes back. I’m really excited to see it.”
The filmmakers invited Gruen to see the tents of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth set at the end of the production. “When we drove up over the berm, and there was the Benzini Brothers, I was speechless,” she says. “I still can’t really describe it—just knowing that it was all in my head five years ago . . . it was amazing.”
Gruen and her family are attending the film premiere April 17 in New York City. “Nobody’s going to be looking at the author, but I’ll be there,” she says. “My husband threatens to wear a 20-year-old suit, my oldest son wants to wear a gorilla suit, but me—I want to look glamorous.”
Gruen will have to gear up for the additional wave of popularity that the film will no doubt bring. “It’s still sinking in,” she says of her runaway bestseller, a favorite of book clubs across the country. “I am absolutely flabbergasted. I have no idea why it resonated the way it did.”
For a writer who estimated the chance of getting published at two percent but got a phenomenon instead, this traveling literary circus shows no sign of pulling up stakes and leaving the station any time soon.