A lot of time we hear phrase, ‘The book’s better than the movie.’ But we rarely hear the opposite.

As good as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants was (being a New York Times bestseller and all), the movie, well… is even better.

Aside from obvious differences (The movie doesn’t start with the stampede prologue, Uncle Al is nowhere to be found, and August insists on calling Jacob “Cornell” throughout), there’s something to be said for the streamlining that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Horse Whisperer) gave Water in order to fit the 350-page novel into two hours.

Show of hands: how many people, as you read the book, were tempted to skip over all the present-day ‘nursing-homes-are-bad’ chapters to get back to the drama at the 1931 circus? Apparently, LaGravenese is among those with his hand raised, since we only see 90-year-old (or is it 93?) Jacob book-ending the film. The result is almost Titanic-like, as a young buck listens to an old-timer tell all about the most tragic event in his full life.

As old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) stands in the rain outside the circus one night, he gets taken in by Charlie (Paul Schneider), who knows about the disaster at the Benzini Bros. circus all those years ago. When Charlie digs out a vintage photo, Jacob breaks down and tells the whole story over a few glasses of Scotch.

Depression-era Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is finishing up his Veterinary Science degree at Cornell when he gets the news that his parents have been killed in a car crash. Left with nothing, he wanders the countryside, realizing that his only choice is to look for work in the city. As luck would have it, a train whistles through one night, so he hops on board; it’s not until morning that he realizes he’s hopped a circus train.

Immediately drawn by the prospect of a paying job, he decides to stay on, convincing the ringleader August (Christoph Waltz) that a vet could be useful. Jacob’s decision to stay is cemented once he sees the beautiful Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction– though she’s also August’s wife.

Along the way, Jacob and Marlena fall in love and bond over Rosie the elephant, the circus’ latest acquisition. The volatile August, though, is not amused, and once he catches on to the budding romance, Water for Elephants really picks up steam. (And that’s not to say that it isn’t entirely captivating almost from the word ‘go’ anyway.)

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) captures the sights, sounds, and smells of the circus almost perfectly, instantly transporting you under the big top in Depression-era America. When Jacob sees the actual show for the first time early on, it’s almost dreamlike– presented in slow motion and punctuated with only a sparse, twinkling soundtrack. It’s a wonderful contrast to the gritty, sweaty reality Jacob has known to that point, toiling in the manure pits.

Oscar-winners Witherspoon and Waltz are both fantastic, delivering performances that showcase their ample talents. Waltz, particularly, is spot-on, playing the volatile August as just this side of schizophrenic. At some points he’s almost as brutal as his Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds, while at other times he’s almost compassionate. It’s Pattinson, actually, who is the weakest link (though by no means terrible) in Water for Elephants. More often than not he seems half-asleep, declining to show much emotion at all throughout the film. Would it kill the guy to get a little upset, or even occasionally yell a bit as his world is spiraling down (violently) around him?

Despite that, though, the film works on so many different levels that it actually earned a round of applause as the credits rolled. Rosie’s antics are completely charming (well, except for that last one), Pattinson and Witherspoon have a more-than-decent chemistry together, and Lawrence has an almost fanatical attention to historical detail—all of which help push the film from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

No, it’s not often that a movie outshines its source novel, but Water for Elephants does it with seemingly the greatest of ease.

4/5 stars