Books Starring Robert Pattinson

“Books Starring” is a column doing book to movie comparisons of at least two movies that share an actor or actress.

Ashley: When you think of Robert Pattinson, you probably don’t think of a scruffy dude trapezing through the Amazon in South America, but that’s exactly the role he plays in the movie adaptation of The Lost City of Z. While it may be hard to picture Pattinson as anybody other than the pasty, pouting vampire Edward from Twilight, he’s certainly tried to distance himself from that role. If you came here hoping for vampires, sorry — the second book-to-movie comparison of this column, Water for Elephants, features Pattinson as a veterinarian for a circus. (He is pretty cute with animals, though.)

The Lost City of Z

It took me until halfway through The Lost City of Z to realize which character Pattinson was even playing because he looks so unlike himself. Alternatively adorned with a hat and tiny spectacles, sometimes suffering from ugly skin afflictions, and always sporting a bushy beard, Pattinson portrays Henry Costin, the loyal and stoic sidekick to the legendary explorer, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). Fawcett was a real-life man who became obsessed with finding a glorious and ancient lost city in the deadly Amazon, and went missing on an expedition with his son in the 1920s. 
The Lost City of Z has amassed almost universal critical acclaim, and there are scenes that scream “Oscar nominee” throughout. It’s hard not to leave the film in awe of how long Fawcett and Costin survived in the Amazon compared to their comrades (they also survived serving in World War I), how forward-thinking they were toward indigenous peoples despite predominant Victorian notions about “savages,” and just generally how upstanding they were. It makes you nostalgic for a time without airplanes, a time where you could really explore the world.
Having watched the movie first, I was surprised by how immediately different the book is (this is nonfiction, after all!). In the movie, you’re led to believe Fawcett’s son, Jack, always hated his father for leaving his family to go off exploring in faraway lands. It isn’t until the end that they reach an understanding, and Jack goes with Fawcett on that final, ill-fated expedition. The book, written by journalist David Grann, immediately dispels this hostile image of father and son, stating that Jack always admired his father and had excitedly followed him to the Amazon as soon as possible, and brought along his best friend, no less. 

Grann’s story also provides more historical perspective than the movie can, via the framing story — Grann, in the mid-2000s, plans to follow Fawcett’s route into the Amazon and look for the Lost City of Z, a grand paradise lost and archeological wonder waiting to be found in the jungle. Grann provides details on how research into the Amazon and biology has evolved since the Victorian era, changing the landscape and meaning of Fawcett’s feats in the century since Fawcett set foot in the jungle. It’s far more interesting to hear how Fawcett tried to square the circle of his progressive ideas with the entrenched Victorian values he still upheld than it is just to watch him be progressive in all but essentially one movie-only scene involving him having a  feminist debate with his wife.
Given the pretty cheesy ending of the movie, and how a whole narrative arc of it is disproved within five minutes of reading the book, I really have to recommend the book over the movie on this one. Of course, if you’re wondering how the ending could be cheesy, you’ll just have to watch to find out for yourself. Pattinson’s stellar and unexpected performance will surely keep you entertained throughout.

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants aligns more with Pattinson’s Twilight performance: It’s about a man named Jacob Jankowski who joins the circus as a veterinarian as the Great Depression starts and falls in love with the circus’s lead performer, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Unfortunately for Jacob, Marlena is already married to the ringmaster (the equestrian director in the book), and he turns out to be a not-quite-so-nice man.
Sara Gruen’s historical novel had its heyday in the late aughts, and a resurgence when the movie was released in 2011, but it feels particularly relevant now with the recent permanent closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Ringling Bros. has many mentions throughout Water for Elephants, as the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth suffers severe bouts of jealousy toward Ringling. With the circus now shut down, seeing such dangerous stunts and staged performances with animals does feel like something from the distant past.

Just as with The Lost City of Z, Gruen’s novel has a strong framing story throughout the novel, spiriting the reader back to the present and giving us the perspective of an old, decrepit Jacob who’s excited about the circus coming to town. While some of the framing story is retained in the movie, it’s paltry compared to the book. And again like The Lost City of Z, the book version of Water for Elephants expounds on the cultural context of the early 1930s in America far better than the movie. In an attempt to streamline the story, the movie essentially cut out all characters that are not the three main leads (OK, four, if we’re counting the elephant, Rosie).
Nevertheless, I’d recommend both reading the book and watching the movie. While reading about acrobats and animals is fun enough, seeing them on screen is even more magical, and I did thoroughly enjoy when Pattinson asks the newly acquired Rosie “is this how elephants flirt?” as the elephant prods Jacob with her trunk. Water for Elephants both captures the magic of the circus, making you wistful for when you visited it as a child, and gives credence to animal rights’ activist’s complaints that have, at least in part, led to the shutting down of The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s a great balancing act, indeed.

Also available as an audiobook.

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