Many times, when I talk to people about filmmakers like Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro, they say something about loose screws, and in a voice that suggests mild insanity. Nothing makes me angrier than when people dismiss creativity as nothing more than a fleeting fancy of mental illness or drug use, because, sometimes, imagination is a natural-born talent nurtured with keen powers of observation. When Tim Burton is off his game, Guillermo del Toro takes up the mantle of the strange but imaginative Hollywood director. It’s been over a year since I’ve seen The Shape of Water and so many images have stuck with me. It’s one of those films that doesn’t require a merchandise tie-in novelization, but the unusual fact of the matter is that this one feels like a true work of art—about as much as the movie that inspired it.
In Cold War-era Baltimore, Elisa Esposito is a mute graveyard-shift janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her only friends are Giles, her gay starving artist neighbor, and Zelda, a black fellow janitor. But Elisa soon discovers a strange, secret asset in the facility: an amphibian-esque fish-man plucked from the Amazon to be used as space research. Once Elisa forms a connection with this strange, but beautiful creature, nothing is ever the same again.
There are many reasons The Shape of Water won Best Picture of 2017. But I’m not here to compare movie to book, rather to remark on how astounding this tie-in turned out to be. The movie is remarkable enough, so, with the beautiful, evocative language this book used, more effort was perhaps put forth than necessary. Then again, del Toro co-wrote this book, and he never does anything by halves. The delicate character development and powerful social commentary is still there, but with a touch that is altogether harsh, gentle, and fantastical.
It’s one of the best fairy tales for adults I’ve read in a long time, probably for the fact that the characters and story are unusual. After all, our protagonist is a mute, her neighbor is gay, and her best friend is black. In this era, these are all minorities put upon by society. But this story doesn’t try to draw copious amounts of attention to that fact. Its message of love and acceptance comes about as a result of the characters being good characters, and their magical encounters with the creature touches the child in all of us.
What I love so much about this story (and a reason many del Toro naysayers shrink in disgust and confusion) is the connection between Elisa and the creature. They communicate through sign language and music, which creates one of the most touching and resonant connections I’ve seen. They create this ethereal, magical world together that makes you close your eyes and feel the strength that love can evoke. They’re two outsiders who miraculously found each other, and any force that threatens them is somehow a threat to us as well. It’s sexual and passionate, but at the same time gentle and soothing.
The other characters, like Bob Heffstetler, Giles, and Zelda, are written wonderfully. Bob is a Russian undercover at Occam, but he breaks the mold as a stereotypical Red Russian who is fascinated by, and even genuinely loves, the creature he studies. Giles wants to find someone to love in his own age, amidst his struggle to rediscover creative nirvana. Zelda is brave and true, and dreams of owning her own business, in spite of her race. But it’s most fascinating to watch Richard Strickland, the soldier tasked with bringing the creature from the Amazon, break and crumble, both from under military orders, and his own conviction as an American man and husband. He does things where you don’t know whether to pity him or feel repulsed by him. But either way, each and every character is compelling and, for the most part, endearing.
If you loved the movie, or just haven’t seen it yet, curl up and let your heart be troubled no more with the most tender and beautiful love story of the last decade.