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I read the book a short while ago, after observing how long it stuck to the NYT bestseller list and wondering what the fuzz was about. The plot description sounded quite intriguing, promising exotic adventures in the peculiar parallel world of travelling circuses. It was quite a nice read, good enough for three plane trips, but I felt all in all a bit underwhelmed. The author never really fulfilled the promise of how strange and exotic this parallel world would be, and focused on a bit of a love story that was rather straightforward and conservative.

The film repeats and even heightens some of these problems, fixes others. Most interestingly, it does away with one of the main characters of the book, or rather merges the two most important protagonists (expect the narrator) into one, played by Christoph Waltz. Whoever does anything with a script and has Waltz play it cannot go wrong, same here: he is charming and evil, violent and romantic, and obsessed by whatever he does. His primary aim is to maintain the circus, and he will do this at whatever cost. Compared to him, all other characters are pale. The narrator actually is particularly pale, he is a bit like Harry Potter, mostly standing around passively, waiting for others get the story going. The female lead (played by Reese Witherspoon) is a bit more edgy, but it is not really clear how she becomes so adored by all these men around her (actually, the stripper in the side tent looks much more fun to be around with!).

It is a straightforward film giving you almost exactly what you expect when you read the plot outline, with the exception (here even more than in the book) that they miss out on the opportunity to overwhelm you with stunning and enchanting images of circus performances. They show almost nothing of what is happening inside the bigtop tent, actually, which I can only explain by wondering how expensive it is to get those great performers to act on film. The narration is very conventional, with the annoying twist of the framework narration, where our friend the hero tells the story of his life from the perspective of being an old man stumbling over a circus in town (Hal Holbrook, actually, still with the same hairdresser at age ca. 90). That was just too conventional, sorry, both in book and film. If not for the cute elephant, I would have already forgotten about the film altogether.

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