Nicole Sperling
January 21, 2010 AT 09:55 PM EST

Robert Pattinson and Sean Penn are in negotiations to star with Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants for Fox 2000. The film will be an adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestseller of the same name about a love triangle among circus employees in Depression-era America. Pattinson would play Jacob Jankowski, an orphaned veterinary student who is put in charge of caring for the animals in a traveling circus. He falls in love with beautiful equestrian rider Marlena (Witherspoon) who is married to the troupe’s charismatic but dangerous animal trainer August (Penn).

Francis Lawrence attached to direct, and Richard LaGravenese to adapt the script. Gil Netter, Erwin Stoff and Andrew Tennenbaum are producing. Fox hasn’t confirmed Pattinson and Penn’s involvement in the project.

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