Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
The Shape of Water has been my all-time favorite movie for several years now—I’m looking over my shoulder at the poster above my bed as I’m writing this. I had the novelization on my TBR for a few years, but only got around to it recently, probably for fear of it not living up to the film. I had no idea that it was a dual release with the film, but after reading it, the novelization of The Shape of Water struggled to live up to the poetic poignance of the film.
Enjoy this week’s review!
The Shape of Water (novelization) – Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus
Summary from Goodreads:
NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE FROM FOX SEARCHLIGHT
Visionary storyteller Guillermo del Toro and celebrated author Daniel Kraus combine their estimable talent in this haunting, heartbreaking love story.
The Shape of Water is set in Cold War-era Baltimore at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, which has recently received its most sensitive asset ever: an amphibious man captured in the Amazon. What unfolds is a stirring romance between the asset and one of the janitors on staff, a mute woman who uses sign language to communicate with the creature.
Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release—one story interpreted by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film — The Shape of Water weaves together fantasy, horror, and romance to create a tale that is equally gripping on the page and on the big screen.
TW/CW: racism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, misogyny, sexual harassment/assault, blood, gore, murder, animal death, loss of loved ones
The Shape of Water is a movie that’s touched my heart in a way that I doubt any other will. In summation, the film is a testament to the marginalized experience—any kind of marginalized or othered group—and self-love and acceptance. Guillermo del Toro is a storyteller without parallel, and maybe that’s why I was so hesitant to pick up the novelization for so long. I had no idea that it was a dual release with the film, but either way, my fears ended up being confirmed—Daniel Kraus’ novelization is faithful in the barest, structural way, but largely failed to capture the heart of the film’s message.
I’m not familiar with Daniel Kraus’ other novels, but even a quick scan on Goodreads tells me that he’s a frequent collaborator with Guillermo del Toro, which, after reading this, frankly surprises me. Del Toro’s storytelling, from this film to Pan’s Labyrinth and the most recent Pinnochio, has a consistently strong emotional core, something that anchors the fantastical elements to our most core human experiences. And somehow, Kraus chose to adapt this novel in the most flat, checklist-like way possible. Yes, all of the beats of the film were there, as well as some bonus content. But thanks to Kraus’ dry writing, the emotional core—what made the story so deeply impactful in the first place—apparently flew straight over his head.
Now, before I get into my major gripes, I will say this—the novelization picks up far more at the halfway point. The chapters that Kraus writes from the perspective of The Asset were an unmistakable highlight, charming, dreamlike, and refreshingly strange compared to most of the other perspectives. I almost find myself wishing that the scene with Bob Hoffstetler and The Asset made it to the film. And the very climactic events in the third act were dealt with the appropriate amount of weight, and the pace picked up significantly, unlike the steady pace of the movie. And as much as I love the dance scene, I completely get the decision to nix it from the novel—out of all of the scenes to translate from screen to page, that would be at the top of the page.
With that out of the way, I was bothered by how much emphasis Kraus places on the antagonist, Strickland. There were some fascinating scenes that never made it to the film of the process of him capturing The Asset in the South American rainforest; they were interesting additions, and although I liked them in general, it mostly ended up being Strickland being incredibly racist. It’s painfully on brand for his character, but beyond that, it seemed like his character got the most page time out of the whole cast. He is the main villain, sure, but given that this story is about the marginalized experience and he is the predatory antithesis to what the film stands for, the decision didn’t leave the best taste in my mouth.
My other main issue was how Kraus wrote the character of Elisa Esposito. For the most part, Kraus was somewhat faithful to her personality, but there were multiple instances where the descriptions of her were incredibly concerning. On several occasions, she is described as “childlike” and “[like] a kindergartener” in scenes where she is struggling to communicate her needs—for those of you who have not seen this film, Elisa is mute, and she uses ASL to communicate. It’s already offensive on the front that Elisa is such a treasured character to me, but Kraus seems to, once again, miss the message of the film by a mile, and ends up right smack in the middle of the all-too-common trope of infantilizing disabled people—especially disabled women. Elisa is in no way “childlike” for trying to communicate her needs—she is a grown woman, and she is frustrated by the struggle to communicate with her abled peers in a world that is not built for her. Let me say it again: Elisa Esposito is a grown woman. Even though Kraus was somewhat respectful in some of his other descriptions of her, but these instances all but negated everything else that he had established in the adaptation.
All in all, a structurally faithful, occasionally beautiful, but often frustrating adaptation of a film that will forever have the prime spot in my heart. 3 stars from a peeved Guillermo del Toro fan. Just watch the movie instead.
The Shape of Water is a standalone, as the film is, but Daniel Kraus has also collaborated with Guillermo del Toro on the novel Trollhunters. Kraus is also the author of The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch, The Teddies Saga, and several other books for all ages.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!