The Shape of Water
by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro
Alright, so, with as much as I enjoy twists on mermaid stories, this was kind of inevitable, right? I’d heard a lot about the movie, but hadn’t yet seen it, so I figured I’d read the novelization. What I didn’t realize until reading the book, though, is that this isn’t actually a novelization of the movie. The movie and the book were written at the same time, about the same story, but tell different parts of it. (This article explains how both were written.) The book delves more into the mythology behind the creature, and gets into the thoughts and feelings of both the creature and Elisa. Those things are incredibly hard to communicate in film, especially when the characters can’t speak! So, far from “reading the book instead of seeing the movie,” now that I’ve read the book, I REALLY want to see the movie!
If you haven’t heard of the movie, the basic premise of both movie and book is Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret research facility, is cleaning a lab when she sees what’s contained in it – an amphibious man-like creature kept in captivity and experimented on. She teaches him sign language and eventually falls in love with him and decides to break him out of the lab before the researchers kill him. The plot is set in the 60s, so there’s a lot more overt racism and sexism going on, as well as some Cold War spycraft.
It’s also set in Baltimore, which is another thing I didn’t know before reading the book!
There’s a pretty good amount of minority representation here – Elisa is mute, her two best friends are black (Zelda) and gay (Giles). Zelda worries about her place as “the black friend” of a white woman, but also sees Elisa as a little damaged and in need of her care. When Elisa gets tunnel vision on the merman, Zelda’s worries are mostly confirmed, but not for the reasons she thinks, since Elisa shuts out Giles too. There’s definitely something to be learned there about hurting your friends unintentionally when starting a new relationship!
A lot of people saw this plot as super weird, with the woman falling in love with the sea-creature, but how many mermaid films do we have where the man falls in love with the mermaid when she still has her fish tail? Sure, the merman here is fully scaled and can’t talk, but Ariel can’t talk in most versions of The Little Mermaid, either. I don’t see it as much different, other than it’s a women falling in love with someone who isn’t the typical image of masculinity. And at least in the book, there are a couple of chapters from his perspective. He’s sentient and consenting. (I hope that comes across in the movie, too.)
I really enjoyed this one, and I definitely need to watch the movie to get the rest of the story. The book is self-contained – nothing’s missing, exactly, but since it was written in both mediums at the same time, I feel like I need to see the movie to perhaps flesh out some things.
From the cover of The Shape of Water:
It’s 1962, and Elisa Esposito – mute her whole life, orphaned as a child – is struggling with her humdrum existence as a janitor working the graveyard shift at Baltimore’s Occam Aerospace Research Center. Were it not for Zelda, a protective coworker, and Giles, her loving neighbor, she doesn’t know how she’d make it through the day.
Then one fateful night, she sees something she was never meant to see, the Center’s most sensitive asset ever; an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon, to be studied for Cold War advancements. The creature is terrifying but also magnificent, capable of language and of understanding emotions . . . and Elisa can’t keep away. Using sign language, the two learn to communicate. Soon, affection turns into love, and the creature becomes Elisa’s sole reason to live.
But outside forces are pressing in. Richard Strickland, the obsessed soldier who tracked the asset through the Amazon, wants nothing more than to dissect it before the Russians get a chance to steal it. Elisa has no choice but to risk everything to save her beloved. With the help of Zelda and Giles, Elisa hatches a plan to break out the creature. But Strickland is onto them. And the Russians are, indeed, coming.
Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release – one story interpreted by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film – The Shape of Water is unlike anything you’ve ever read or seen.