Fairy tales offer little to no meaning. Whether masked behind titles like Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, or Jack and the Beanstalk the effect is the same: a bunch of stuff happens, the end. Beyond pleas for caution or greater self-control, that “stuff” in the middle carries no more significant meaning than the events themselves. Stuff just happens.
The same cannot be said for The Shape of Water.
Positioned often as a modern-day fairy tale, Guillermo Del Toro’s most recent love story argues the effectiveness of taking action to protect another—and yourself (Overall Story Solution of
Misogynistic Antagonist Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at a secret government laboratory with an “asset” (Story Driver of
Action). They intend to study the creature, to learn what they can about living and surviving in high-pressure environments, to beat the Russians at the height of the Cold War (Overall Story Concern of
Learning). Unbeknownst to them Guardian Dimitri Mosenkov (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy, poses as the scientist leading the experimentation.
Dimitri, empathic towards the sea monster suffers at the hands of Strickland (and the potential abuse awaiting at the hands of Soviets) wants to wait. He wants to do nothing—an approach at odds with both the Soviets and the US (Overall Story Issue of
Strategy). Doing nothing is precisely the kind of thing a man of action like Strickland can’t stand (Overall Story Problem of
Inaction). Especially when the sea monster attacks and dismembers a portion of Strickland’s hand (Story Driver of
Action). The mute responses from Strickland’s interrogation of cleaning ladies Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) only serve to fuel the fire for the Colonel’s plan of revenge and retribution (Overall Story Direction of
For Elisa, the quiet is the result of a severe childhood accident (Main Character Throughline of
Universe). Left as a babe at the side of a river with debilitating scars on either side of her neck, Elisa spends most of her life withdrawn and removed—unnoticed by those around her (Main Character Focus of
Proaction). When the sea monster shows interest in her Elisa latches on, overjoyed at finding someone who accepts her without equivocation (Main Character Issue of
Attraction and Main Character Problem of
Taking the unorthodox approach of bringing eggs and playing music for the monster, Elisa begins to build a life of romance for herself (Main Character Problem-Solving Style of
Holistic and Main Character Benchmark of
If only her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), equally reclusive and in matters of love, were so bold.
Giles thinks very little of himself (Influence Character Throughline of
Mind). Disregarded by his former employer and more importantly—the handsome young man selling pies at the local diner—Giles finds himself old and lacking in every way (Influence Character Concern of
Conscious and Influence Character Critical Flaw of
Deficiency). Paralyzed with indecision and unable to engage in the kind of act first, ask questions approach that Elisa so easily does, Giles waits for his true love to come to him (Influence Character Problem of
Inaction, Main Character Approach of
Do-er, and Influence Character Benchmark of
Putting Giles’ approach against Elisa’s, The Shape of Water shows the latter to be insufficient and the former the key in matters of love and romance. This effective argument elevates the film beyond a simple fairy tale and into the halls of a complete and meaningful story. Envy and inaction beget more envy and more inaction—acceptance allows the love to flow.
Elisa cooks for Giles and Giles introduces her to old musicals. This dysfunctional relationship rests upon their shared need for a higher emotional connection with another (Relationship Throughline of
Psychology, Relationship Story Issue of
Need). Neither has the answer, but their friendship’s ability to identify this commonality between them transforms their bond and drives them closer to one another (Relationship Story Concern of
Conceiving, Relationship Story Problem of
Deduction, and Relationship Story Benchmark of
In the end, it is Giles who radically transforms the way he sees the world (Influence Character Resolve of
Changed). By rising to the occasion and defending Elisa and the monster from the dastardly hand of Strickland, Giles secures the safety of the monster and his dear friend (Influence Character Solution of
Protection and Story Outcome of
Monster and mute embrace undersea—a place hostile to harsh words and rejection, a place friendly to eternal love.
But when I think of her, of Elisa, the only thing that comes to mind is a poem, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart. For you are everywhere.” (Story Judgment of