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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fiddling with Water

By Source, Fair use,
I've never tried screen-writing (probably poems, stories, novels, and some nonfiction are quite enough), but a movie often makes me think about how I would write its story differently, even when it is hung with glittering nominations and awards. For example, The Shape of Water was a stylish, often ravishing-looking piece, a lovely Marvellian "green thought in a green shade," but I found myself wanting to tinker with its pieces: I wanted more transformation, metamorphosis, change. Such fiddling, of course, is none of my business, but who can stop a writer from playing with words and stories?

Obviously del Toro's tale (screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) was indebted, among other sources, to the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, which in turn springs beautifully from the ancient Greek myth of the perfectly married body and soul, or Eros (Cupid or Amor) and his beloved, Psyche (Anima.) Portrayals of Eros and Psyche go back to the fourth century B. C. in Greece. (Apuleuis wrote the first full narrative of their story in Latin.)

And so I end up considering The Shape of Water in the light of Eros and Psyche, a story of metamorphosis, of a woman gaining strength as she passed through many trials, of two impossibly-different (one a winged god, one an earthly princess) strangers finding sacred union and giving birth to their child, Pleasure. Through her many tasks and her difficult journey to the Underworld, Psyche becomes more than she was, and at last she wins immortality and becomes the equal of Eros. Eros and Psyche has always been a story of the achievement of wholeness, and through the centuries it has been popular and multivalent, giving rise to varied and rich meanings. I played with the story some years ago in The Throne of Psyche, so I am guilty of adding to that heap of meanings.

Alphonese Legros, Cupid and Psyche (1867)
Public Domain / Wikipedia / Google Art Project

Toying, tinkering with a shape of water

What if the amphibian-with-powers was also, like the Greek god Eros, more complex, more human in his acts? That is, what if he appeared to have a soul, so that Elisa's discovery of his worth appeared more powerful?

What if he refrained from slashing flesh, munching on Giles's cats, and murdering those who do not understand what he is? (As is, it's a possibility that Strickland's harsh, cartoon view is a bit more accurate than the viewer would like--after all, the Amazonian fish-man repeatedly chooses to be violent, even though he is shown as powerful enough to make other choices.)

What if the amphibian lover performed a redemptive, possibly transformative act at the close, giving life and change (redemption? a speck or a peck of penitence?) to Strickland rather than simply killing a baddie drawn too firmly in cardboard? What if Strickland was transformed from something less to something more, and in the process the creature was also elevated to something more in Elisa's mind and in our minds?

The close gives us the pattern of death and resurrection, but the Amazonian is no god for Easter--he's a god for sex and death and a happily-ever-after we had better not examine too closely. For like Psyche, Elisa meets death and is changed somewhat (gills! whether brand new or simply opened because she was already part fish), but it's hard to puzzle out how she and her amphibian love will keep house together underwater in the Amazon.

What if, like Psyche, Elisa had a more complicated relationship with her lover, one that further developed the idea that she is fearful but learning who and what he is, that gave her uncertainty when others were fearful for her, and that showed her changing (in more than gills) to pursue her love?

What if the story was a kind of Eros and Psyche story without side tales that hammered home obvious messages about the patriarchy and How Bad and Illiberal American White People Especially Men Were Not So Long Ago (but now at least we who chose to see the movie are good and love everybody, even Amazonian monsters)? What if the movie didn't pat us on the back in this manner? What if the story didn't tell us how much better we viewers are now than people were before but made us long for our own transformation into something more beautiful and human?

What if...

Note: One of my favorite pieces about Guillermo del Toro is The New Yorker feature by Daniel Zalewski. See it here. And I would like to see a del Toro version of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness...

Note no. 2: Maybe it's time to re-watch Pan's Labyrinth. And here's a documentary about the Pale Man, the Faun, the toad, and the stick-insect fairies.


  1. Have you not heard of spoiler alert? The system whereby - if you choose to reveal a work's ending - you warn those who may not have seen/read it.

    Actually I've seen The Shape of Water so I wasn't affected. It wasn't exactly my bowl of cherries but I thought the Fish-man's wildness (Ah, I sensed a collective gasp spreading over at least two continents when the cat's fate was revealed.) was essential if he was not to be thought of as a gilled version of St Francis. So that she (SPOILER ALERT) eventually enters his world not the other way round.

    But more than that you started this post wondering about screenplays. It's something that has fascinated me but I've only done it once (in the form of five connected playlets) and the difficulties boggle my mind. Speculating about redemption and/or penitence is all very well (I'm just about to hawk a novel. Blest Redeemer, about redemption) but imagine converting these abstractions into mere dialogue. Dialogue that also sparkles and entertains. In fact you hint at the difficulties (keeping house underwater).

    Of course this is the appeal of blooging. One may start a hare but one need not follow it. I wouldn't be severe on you for all the world.

    1. Did you see the Shrek cartoon? Same reversal you approve! I loved the book "Shrek" and often read it to my children...

      Of course, the course of true love never does run smooth, right? It's not a given that they end up together.

      I think that you ought to blog about your screenwriting. I would find it interesting, at any rate.

    2. I guess the part that bothers me the most is that nobody changes. Why shouldn't Strickland change? He needs to--everybody around him needs him to change. But no, he's too important as an image of a mythical Strict Land that is rigorously black and white and without sympathy.

  2. Fascinating! I have not seen (and will not see) the movie. But you set my tapioca mind to quivering with memories of Ovid, Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare. Hmmm. Well, the connections are clearly there in my slightly curdled curmudgeonly brain. Thank you, fair lady.

    1. Yes, those are great places to go, and to link up with Eros and Psyche. I'm glad you didn't vanish, Tim!

  3. I haven't seen the film yet, but from what I've read it does seem like more of a Statement than an investigation, not asking "what if?" but saying "this is", if you see what I mean (and since I'm just paraphrasing you, I'm sure you do!). But I think it's a lot more work to explore than to make claims, to ask "what else is hiding in this idea" instead of "how can I reinforce this worldview".

    I enjoyed this post, and I often work the intellectual puzzle of "what's wrong with this story" or "how would I have written this". Sometimes that annoys Mary, but she chose to live with me and I can't help it.

    And spoilers, schmoilers, I says. There is more to art than surprise. Or, there are many forms of surprise that don't involve plot. Or something.

    1. I do think that if knowing something about a book or a movie that "spoils," then it wasn't much of a movie or a book to start with...

      Yes, I feel sad when a director who really knows how to make something wondrous-looking and has his/her own style falls into reinforcing the standard Hollywood world view (complete with homages to Hollywood in this case.) The quickest way to jolt me out of story is to start sending messages.

      I love the Psyche and Eros story, and this is a version, but it ought to have been richer--as rich as it is lovely in places. Message spoils so many things.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.