The year is 1962. Elisa Esposito, mute her whole life, works as a janitor at Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore, along with her friend Zelda.
Elisa’s monotonous life takes a turn when she meets with the amphibious man who is kept in the Center to be studied by Richard Strickland, the soldier who captured him in the Amazon. Elisa and the creature automatically feel drawn to each other and start to communicate with sign language. Soon, they develop a deep love for each other.
Strickland, obsessed with the creature in a twisted way, wants to dissect it before the Russians get ahold of it. To save her beloved from the hands of Strickland and the Russians, Elisa, with the help of her friend Zelda and her neighbor Giles, must orchestrate a plan to sneak the amphibious man out of Occam unnoticed.
GENRES: Historical Fiction, Sci-Fi, Romance
As most of you probably already know, The Shape of Water is also a movie directed by Guillermo del Toro. It was released at the end of 2017 and received numerous awards since it came out.
Until recently, it was unclear to me whether the movie was based on the novel or the other way around, since the book was released only a short while after the movie. Turns out the answer is neither of the foregoing options.
I found out in an article that The Shape of Water was actually Daniel Kraus’ idea, not del Toro’s, and that Kraus shared his idea with the famous director when they were working together on some other project. Del Toro loved it, and together they decided to make a movie and a novel out of it. Both were written simultaneously and independently, though del Toro and Kraus talked a lot about where the story would go as they were working on it.
The result? Two extremely similar stories, with just a couple of differences. In this case, is the book really better than the movie? Or can you get the most out of the story by watching the movie only?
My answer to these questions is clear: do not spend 10 hours of your life reading The Shape of Water. You will end up crying over the precious time you lost, which you could have used for… I don’t know, something more productive or enjoyable than reading unnecessary subplots and movie scenes described in too many words. Because that’s what The Shape of Water is made of: scenes from the movie + subplots no one cares about.
Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the movie first, since I watched it before diving into the novel. So, the story takes place in the 1960s and we follow characters who, basically, are involved in some activities related to the Cold War. For that reason, I was not expecting this kind of atmosphere, which I would almost describe as whimsical, for lack of a better word. The atmosphere is not whimsical per se, but there’s something about the outfits, the furniture and the visual imagery that reminds me of old advertisement pictures and how they make ludicrous caricatures. This kind of vibe is not out of place in the movie, but it definitely took me by surprise.
As for the actual story, I thought it was a bit cliché. We basically follow our heroine and her two sidekicks in their quest to save her love interest from the villain’s grip. Besides, we do not really get to witness how the relationship between Elisa and the amphibious man develop. Bonding over two or three eggs and some music does not make for a properly developed relationship. The fact that both Elisa and the amphibious man are outcasts doesn’t make the insta-love okay, and it certainly doesn’t do them justice either. Their “differences” do not limit them to the first person that looks at them twice!
I was actually expecting to see more of that relationship development in the novel. Guess what? It didn’t happen! The novel is 314 pages long, and I didn’t even learn anything relevant to the plot that I didn’t already know from the movie. This whole novel just feels like a bad novelization, though technically it wasn’t. Nothing is added to the original plot, and half of the chapters are just long descriptions of the movie scenes. The other half consists of irrelevant subplots and enhanced characterization of the side characters, which, again, is irrelevant to the main plot. For example, we follow Lainie, Strickland’s wife, for at least 20 chapters, but Lainie has no other purpose in the book than being Strickland’s wife. She doesn’t play any role in the main plot, and she doesn’t even interact with the main characters except for Strickland. What’s the point of these chapters then? Yes, it gives us some insight into the living conditions of housewives in the sixties, but it adds absolutely nothing to Elisa and the amphibious man’s story.
Since we are on the topic of characters, let’s just talk about how disgusting of a human being Strickland really is and how he deserves everything he gets. So, in the movie, Strickland basically takes on the role of the villain. His sole purpose is to study the amphibious man, and since he is a spiteful man, he doesn’t mind torturing the creature. The thing is, Strickland only gets worse in the novel. Not crueler or anything, but more… human. I know, it sounds like a good thing, but that’s only until you meet the “nicer” Strickland. Kraus, that sneaky one, tried to portray Strickland as a messed-up character instead of a strictly monstrous one. So, the numerous chapters following that dirtbag are about him doing awful things and then feeling guilt-ridden about them. Oh, and blaming his actions on the war, let’s not forget that. I liked him way better in the movie where I could just hate him in peace.
I think some of Strickland’s thoughts are also worth quoting because they are so disgusting I want to gag. Once, after intentionally spilling candies on the floor so he can call Elisa to clean up (and feed his gross obsession with her), it goes like this: “He’s left staring at her backside. Tough to get a sense of it under that uniform, but he figures it’s good enough. Definitely good enough if she keeps wearing shoes like that. The shoes are leopard patterned. Leopard patterned. If she’s not wearing them for his enjoyment, then whose.” What a self-entitled bastard! Like we, women, wear clothes and shoes and make-up only to please men! Let’s also scorn disdainfully at this one: “Female brains, he knows, require time to think.” Strickland is my absolute nightmare of a man, and if I had known beforehand that he was such a shitty character, I would never have picked up the novel.
Well, do I have anything good to say about The Shape of Water? I have to admit that the cast of characters couldn’t get more diverse: we follow a mute woman, a black woman, an old homosexual man, an amphibious man, a Russian spy, a housewife and a shitty dirtbag of a white man. If that’s not diversity, I don’t know what is! The overall morale of the story, which is that true love and loyal friends are worth fighting for, is also a good one. That kind of message of love and unity never gets old.
“She reaches out to him. To herself. There is no difference. She understands now. She holds him, he holds her, they hold each other, and all is dark, all is light, all is ugliness, all is beauty, all is pain, all is grief, all is never, all is forever.”
What’s worth it in The Shape of Water you will encounter in the movie as well as in the novel, so don’t bother picking it up unless you are a huge fan of the movie. In my opinion, not only does the novel highlight the flaws in this story, but it adds in some more.
If you’re curious about Elisa and her amphibious man, just go watch the movie and forget the book even exists.