What do Charleston, cinema, and clowns have in common? If you said “Nicholas Sparks,” good guess, but the answer is Water for Elephants, a drama based in the golden age of the circus. The film, released last month, is based on Sara Gruen’s best-selling 2006 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Charleston’s own Mark Sloan.
Sloan, director and senior curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, released a book of photography in 2003 called Wild, Weird, and Wonderful, which spotlights the American circus in the early 20th century. It was initially a project that focused on people exhibiting their talents in front of a camera, but it changed after Sloan stumbled across prints by a circus photographer named F.W. Glasier. “We’d traveled through hundreds of repositories, looking through, literally, millions of pictures. When I came across Glasier’s, they were a step above — richer, more focused, and more interesting.”
Sloan isn’t sure how, but his book found its way into Gruen’s hands. Gruen used photos from the book in her novel and also mentioned its inspiration in her acknowledgements.
“Wild, Weird, and Wonderful is essentially a time capsule, and I think Gruen was just equally captivated by this period of history,” Sloan says. When asked about the film adaptation, he is excited, yet humble. “There are so many hands that help out with these projects, but the fact that my book played a small part is a thrill. I think [Gruen’s novel] is a staggering act of literary imagination.”
The curator, who has little interest in the contemporary circus, says the big top’s “golden era” is an overlooked period in history that has only recently gotten the attention it deserves. “I remember the first time I went to the circus. I was six years old and living in Chapel Hill, N.C., and my father took me. The sideshow performers, the animals — it all blew me away. I remember seeing people who were disfigured, misshapen, basically freaks. My father just sped me along, but, of course, that just piqued my interest further.”
As a man with a great knowledge of the Greatest Show on Earth, Sloan says the film stays true to the era. “Of course, my first thought when I heard they were making the movie was ‘Oh, God,'” he says. “But now that I’ve seen it, I can say the circus component was beautiful, compelling, and, most of all, accurate. There are some costumes designed straight from the book.”
When asked if he received any recognition in the movie’s credits, Sloan laughs. “I’m not sure. I didn’t sit through them. It doesn’t matter either way. These cultural projects have a life beyond them outside of the curator’s hands.”