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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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When Kraus met del Toro for the first time, in Toronto, where the director was filming Pacific Rim (2013), he spontaneously shared his idea for what became a hit movie in the closing weeks of 2017. “It was very simple,” Kraus explains. “It was an idea I had when I was 15. All I told Guillermo was that a Creature from the Black Lagoon–type creature was in a government lab, and it was found by a night janitor. She struck up a relationship with the creature, and then she decided to break him out and take him home and put him in her tub. That was it. That was the premise. Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954) was always my favorite monster movie, and I brought it up because I knew that Guillermo was also a big fan. He was immediately excited about the idea, and he optioned it pretty much that day. I was thinking of it as a book; he saw it as a movie. I know now that he had been trying to find a way into telling a story about an amphibious man and a woman for years, so it was a weird, magical moment when it all came together. But then nothing happened for a time.”
When things did kick in, everything happened in a whirl. Kraus hadn’t yet written the book when he learned that del Toro was already at work on the movie. They decided to write the novel together, and they had to work fast. Kraus elaborated: “It was a strange, unusual process. Guillermo supplied most of the plot and most of the characters. The writing had to happen fairly quickly. I had seen the script for the movie, but nothing more. I stayed away from everything else, on purpose. I tried to keep the novel as separate as possible. So I didn’t see anything until I attended the premier, at the Venice International Film Festival.”
The Shape of Water, a dazzlingly original, profoundly provocative, gorgeously produced, and utterly spellbinding film, starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Doug Jones, won the Golden Lion, Venice’s top award, in August and was soon nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards. Its release in early December 2017 was heralded by glowing reviews and instant appearances on best-of-the-year lists. Released almost three months later, the novel is a phenomenally enrapturing and reverberating work of art in its own right.
The civil rights movement is in full swing; a new surge of feminism is gathering strength; and the Cold War demonization of Communists has ignited the space race. These forces fuel del Toro and Kraus’ brilliantly plotted, darkly lyrical, and richly compelling fairy tale enacted by magnetic characters, each a misfit, each made to feel monstrous. Elisa, with strange scars on her neck, is unable to speak; Zelda, her friend and coworker on the night shift at a top-secret government research facility in Baltimore, is African American. Elisa’s friend and neighbor, Giles, is a commercial artist who has been ostracized for being gay. “We liked this idea of a band of outsiders,” Kraus explained. “Although they are so different, these three people who have so little power on their own join forces.” What unifies them is the cruel plight of a magnificent creature, the River God, or, as Strickland, the raving military man who captured it, says, the “asset.”
Omnisciently narrated, the novel, illustrated by artist James Jean, a multiple Eisner Award winner for his comic-book covers, vividly illuminates the minds of the characters, greatly enhancing our understanding of their temperaments and predicaments and providing more expansive and involving story lines, especially for Strickland and his secretly rebellious wife, Lainie. The most daring passages are from the creature’s point of view.
The dynamic between the movie and the novel is vital and fascinating, and people will be eager to talk about what each version has in common and how they diverge, making The Shape of Water pure gold for exciting programming and movie and book clubs.
The Shape of Water, both movie and novel, is enchanting and affecting by virtue of its rapturous beauty, complex suspense, and far-reaching empathy, especially its acknowledgment that many of us feel cast as the Other, misunderstood, undervalued, and silenced. Kraus and del Toro’s gripping and resonant fable protests intolerance and affirms the interconnection of all life. It is also a magical and transforming tale of courageous and transcendent love.
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