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We Bought A Zoo by Benjamin Mee: My Take on the Book #book2movie

We Bought A Zoo 
written by Benjamin Mee
204 pages

Opened  December 23
Stars Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson,
Directed by Cameron Crowe 

About the Book:

Knowing it was the basis for what looked like a romantic comedy starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, I really wanted to LOVE this book. It was not at all what I expected and I tried to enjoy it for its own merits. If you've seen the movie, believe me, this is nothing like the film. BUT if you are an animal lover and find topics like extracting a tooth from a bear or how to get a decrepit animal park in shape for the inspectors, then this book may be for you. It was occasionally funny and heartwarming but Mee's tendency to go on an on about the bureaucratic process really diluted the pleasure of the good bits!

What's sad is that there is a very central human element that should be at the heart of this 'memoir' which has to do with Mee's ill wife. Unfortunately, Mee had no idea how to deal with this in real life and even less on paper. The emotional ground was never mined. I really have no idea how a producer read this, saw the heart at the core and decided IF they changed this and that, it would make a really lovely movie. Which it did! It has made just shy of $94 million worldwide and is still playing in theatres near you so I suggest you see it.

My Reading Log (may contain book and/or movie) spoilers

November 21, 2011: It's the true story of a British family who --wait for it -- buy a zoo!

If you've seen the trailer for the movie which stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, you already know that in the movie the family is definitely NOT British. And the zoo, which in the real world is in England, looks like it's somewhere in the states in the reel world. So one wonders what else they've changed. Or does one? Because just over 60 odd pages into this two hundred and four-page book, this is what I know:  British family emigrates to France to restore an old farmhouse, wife gets diagnosed with cancer. Treatment cures her massive tumor except all the experts say it will come back; there is a very, very small chance of survival. The husband, a DIY writer, is in a bit of a state of denial about this so when his family back in Britain suggests they all pool their resources to buy a zoo - which comes with a huge ramshackle house - he plunges in to explore the options. After endless rounds of conversation, consultation, studies, and legal documents ad nauseam, they buy this zoo - which is in just as poor shape as the house.
And just over 60 pages in, this is what I know. The basis of the story should be a glorious feeding ground for the dramatic. Unfortunately, at least so far,  Mee's telling of it isn't. It's a tad stodgy and so full of the endless details of the purchase, and really very little attention to the wife, that one can forgive screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and director Cameron Crowe (more about Crowe in another post) for making a film, more accurately inspired by the book, rather than being based on it. Then again, perhaps I'm not being fair, perhaps we're still in the formative stages and Mee will deliver the goods in the three-fourths of the book I've yet to read. So, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I will persevere and shoo away my thoughts that for once, the film may be better than the book. A nice ending. Just not what I am hoping for as I read! Have you read it? What did you think? Am I getting ahead of myself?

November 27, 2011
Sadly, finishing the book only cements my initial responses. Mee's book gets very bogged down throughout with the details of bringing the zoo up to snuff. Not that it's not important ground to tread - it is - but with the exception of a couple of pages which literally brought me to tears (you know, the kind that blur the pages)
Mee mostly casts his wife and kids as background players. What's important to Mee - at least in this book - are the animals and taking care of them. And he does do that very well. Reading about animal escapees, and dental operations on big cats and a bear no less, is fairly interesting stuff, especially if you are an animal lover and interested in the world of animal conservation. But the drama, the human pathos, he doesn't quite know how to deal with that.
Perhaps Mee himself, grieving over his wife's death (which I have to add happens DURING the course of rehabbing the zoo; it is NOT the catalyst for the purchase as the movie has it, rather more nobly) still needed to keep his feelings at arm's length in order to pen the memoir. Perhaps the sadness was just too overwhelming for him to deal with it and, much as it seems he did with his kids, he just had to put it on the backburner to get by. He does tell us that he frequently has to leave a room abruptly to have a cry but as every writer and reader knows, there is a big difference in telling us something and showing us. Show us and we will feel it. For the most part, Mee doesn't. If you are looking for human pathos, see the movie. If you are fascinated with the subject of animals, and animal conservation, add this one to your bookshelf first.