Women falling in love with monsters is nothing new. Beauty and the Beast is just that—a beautiful young woman falls in love with a monster and the power of true love turns the scary monster into a handsome prince. Even outside the realm of fairy tales, later stories such as The Phantom of the Opera, or the Francis Ford Coppola 1992 adaptation of Dracula had the female lead falling in love with a monster. Even then, the Phantom has the gift of music to woo Christine and Dracula can use his powers to turn into a handsome younger man.
But what if there was no transformation or powers of flirtation? What if even after falling in love, the monster didn’t turn into a handsome man? Or even with Shrek, the beautiful woman turns into a monster herself? What if the two leads love each other as they are, and their lonely and isolated lives draw them to each other? The Shape of Water (2017) is the story of a human, Elisa, who falls in love with a humanoid amphibian. Amongst this love story is the heated 1960s conflict between the US and the USSR. Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro, the idea from the film came from a childhood wish of wanting to see the woman and the Gillman from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) end up together.
Not only is this story a twist on the standard monster flick, but the protagonist is too. Elisa is no classic fantasy heroine. Her backstory is not connected to royalty, secretly or otherwise. Abandoned next to a river as a baby, she had her tongue cut out and gill-shaped slashes on her neck. This mutilation robs her of her ability to talk and she communicates via sign-language. Unlike many women of fantasy, Elisa has a job, but not a romantic one; she works as a night janitor in a secret government laboratory. With Elisa’s disability and her job as a cleaner, she is often invisible to many, if not outright ignored.
Elisa has close friends. One is her closeted next-door neighbour Giles, who works as a struggling advertisement illustrator. Another is Zelda, an African-American woman and fellow janitor at the facility. Elisa, Giles, and Zelda are all marginalised in 1960s society. This is a setting and atmosphere Del Toro chose, speaking to The Minnesota Daily, “If I do it about today it becomes too topical about the news. We get it in the news and social media and blah, blah, blah.’ But if I say once upon a time in 1962, it becomes a fairy tale for troubled times. People can lower their guard a bit more and listen to the story and listen to the characters and talk about the issues rather than the circumstances of the issues.” By changing the setting, Del Toro allowed his story to appeal to a wider audience without compromising the message.
Amid Elisa and Zelda’s night-to-night shift, a top-secret container arrives at the facility. Elisa discovers it contains a mysterious creature caught in South America. Her fascination with the amphibian leads to her to attempt communications through sign-language. Soon, the two begin a friendship. Meanwhile the reasons for capturing the creature become more sinister. The Americans are envious at the Soviets for having the current technological advantage, such as their advancements in the Space Race. The US government believes this creature could put them in front. After some careful study, they decide to vivisect the creature before the Soviets learn of its existence. The man in charge of the project is Colonel Richard Strickland.
Stickland is the personified American Dream of the 60s. He has a nice house in a delightful suburb; a pretty wife and two children (a boy and a girl); and a brand new cadillac. Except he always wants more. Even when his wife is telling him the neighbourhood is nice and their children are doing well in school, he tells her Baltimore is a dump. At work Strickland repeatedly abuses the creature, for little reason other than personal pleasure. Stickland is an allegory for the elite in the 1960s. In the LA Times article, Del Toro states of life in the 1960s, “If you were a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, then things were great. You had jet-fin cars, super-fast kitchens. But everyone else didn’t have it so good. And the creature sort of represents everybody else.” As Elisa secretly watches Strickland beat the creature, she resolves to break the amphibian out of the laboratory.
The Shape of Water takes a classic 1950s horror film and turns it into so much more. A story of isolation, repression and fear. The characters are all disenfranchised by the system, and our antagonist, instead of being the monster, is the time’s perfect ideal. Our heroes band together to rescue a being from the cruel clutches of the antagonist. While weakened when alone, together they form an unstoppable force. However, most importantly it’s a love story. Elisa and the creature need not change for each other, internally or externally. They fall in love with each other because of who they are, not who they could be. The Shape of Water has truly changed the monster genre forever.