The Shape of Water book review: If you liked the film, you’ll love the novel
Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy drama, The Shape of Water, was the belle of the awards season this year. Among other big awards, the 2017 movie — starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spenser — was nominated for 13 Oscars and won four, including best picture and best director.
Fine performances, stunning visuals, an award-winning background score, and a captivating and unusual love story – the movie has a lot to recommend for itself. For those who haven’t seen the film, scripted by Toro and Vanessa Taylor, here’s the plot outline.
Set in America of the 1960s, the story follows Elisa, a mute janitor working at a government research centre in Baltimore, who falls in love with an amphibious man imprisoned and being tortured at the lab. When the military decides to murder and dissect him for space research, Elisa — with help from her friends Giles and Zelda —plans a suicidal rescue.
Toro collaborated with author Daniel Kraus to re-tell his story of esoteric love through the novel form, and the subsequent book, published in March, expands and enriches the gossamer strands of the original.
The Shape of Water is not just a romance, it is also the ultimate underdog story where the marginalised — the rejected (a mute Elisa), the oppressed (her black friend Zelda), the persecuted (the out-of-work gay artist Giles), the conscientious (the Russian spy-scientist Dr Hoffstetler) and the different (the fish-man) — survive the cruelty of this world, find purpose in it and risk it all to beat its powerful monsters.
A two-hour movie can just touch the surface of these personal struggles; a book has no such limitations (though Kraus manages the feat in some 300-odd pages). The novel version takes its time to draw out these characters, fill in the crevices in their life stories and dive into their thoughts.
The variety of perspectives, including that of the fish-man, makes the story richer. It not only helps in a finer understanding of the strange connection Elisa and the fish-man share, but also deepens the reader’s attachment to the precious and fragile world that Elisa and Giles create in their sparse lodgings above a movie theatre. Access to their innermost thoughts and fears makes their efforts to find beauty in an ugly world all the more heroic, as they try to light up their lonely and difficult lives with music, laughter, love and friendship.
The novel begins with Richard Strickland (the monster of this subversive fairytale) landing in South America to track the fish-man, a local god. The cold and brutish Strickland (excellently played by Micheal Shanon in the movie), becomes a much scarier modern-day Mistah Kurtz in the novel, whose engagement with ‘the other’ brings out the beast in him.
Burdened with memories of war crimes, chafing under a ruthless General’s thumb and slowly unhinged by his months-long expedition in the Amazon, he is always two seconds away from ripping off his mask of sanity.
Another major — and delightful — addition is the fleshing out of Strickland’s wife, Elaine, into a full-fledged character. Her story of finding self-worth and purpose outside of her home, and in a deeply misogynistic and sexist world, forms another significant sub-plot.
Like all the best stories, this one too is only set in the past; the issues it raises are all still topical. As Toro himself said: “[T]he movie is a movie about our problems today and about demonizing the other and about fearing or hating the other, and how that is a much more destructive position than learning to love and understand.”
The ink-and-paper interpretation of Toro’s subversive fairytale romance makes his excellent film seem like a hurried affair. It is one of those books you’d want to read very slowly because you wouldn’t want it to end.
(The poem, recited in Richard Jenkins’s delicious voice, with which the movie ends.)
The Shape of Water
By Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India