Movie and book: The shape of water

Guillermo del Toro’s The shape of water was the surprise winner of Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. A surprise because “genre” films tend not to reap critical acclaim of this sort. The shape of water is a fantasy film about a sentient water creature kept in a lab, and Oscar tends to prefer rather more gritty, “worthy” fare for its top gong.

I personally loved the film. It’s a cold war fairytale of loss, friendship, and the fear of those who are different. And as per del Toro’s usual style the whole thing is soaked in the sensuous and the visceral. The art and design on his films is always top notch and The shape of water is no exception – the blues and greens of the sea seep into what seems like the very fabric of the film, in other places they are jarringly absent – the visuals and sounds help tell the story.

Still, I wasn’t expecting too much of the novel of The shape of water. Novels based on films are, and I’m speaking generally here, not usually very good. Good books have often translated to good or great films, but can you say the same of films into books?

Often a movie novelisation is something of a cynical cash-grab… just another way to get money out of fans who can relive the experience of the film. And they have a tendency to be nothing more than fleshed out screenplays that don’t really offer much extra insight into the characters or themes. Even “quality” efforts like Alan Dean Foster’s The force awakens can end up making you feel like you should have just watched the movie instead.

But… The shape of water novel by Daniel Kraus is nothing like that at all. Rather than being a book adaptation of the film, Kraus’s novel was written alongside del Toro’s screenplay. Both writers worked independently on their respective projects but traded notes as the process went along. In fact, it was Kraus who first had the idea for a story about a creature being kept in a lab and from that germ of an idea del Toro’s movie grew. So The shape of water (novel) is a rather unique achievement in that it is a story in its own right – it has its own thematic pivots, lyricism and pacing, but which shares its characters, setting, and plot with del Toro’s film. And the language is as glorious and evocative as del Toro’s visual eye is keen:

There is a dark, underwater twitch, like the leg-jerk of a dozing dog, and a plip of water leaps a foot from the center of the pool. It lands and echoes outward in delicate concentric circles – and then the lab’s soft babbles are overwhelmed by a ripsaw of ratcheting metal. The water is torn into an X-shape as four fifteen-foot chains, each bolted to a corner of the pool, pull tight and shark-fin to the surface, sizzling foam and slobbering water, all of them attached to a single rising shape.

Better still, the novel expands on the film in some really satisfying ways, delving into the backstories of several characters, fully rounding out certain people and themes barely hinted at in the cinematic version. There’s a strong feminist storyline that runs through the book, and the Amazonian origins and capture of The Creature (which are never really discussed in the film) form an important part of the story. It also differs from the plot of the film in some minor ways that don’t really detract at all – any differences make sense in the story that it’s telling.

The shape of water is the best novel version of a film I’ve read since The abyss by (the now rather problematic) Orson Scott Card. Based on James Cameron’s also quite watery film set in a underwater drilling platform, the first chapters of the novel, which described the backstories of three of the main characters, were completed before shooting. The actors playing those characters were given “their” chapter to read to inform their performance so in some small ways the movie influenced the novel that then influenced the movie. It’s all a bit “fiction as Russian nesting dolls” but it seems like it’s exactly this kind of collaboration between novelist and director that makes for the best movie fiction.

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Tell me a story : audiobook bliss

Cover of The adventures of Augie MarchScrolling through shelves of audiobooks on Overdrive recently I came across The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, I’ve always skirted round this heavy weight literary man (multiple award winner including the Nobel prize for Literature in 1976). This time on impulse I decided to “give him a go” and I’m chuffed that I did! I was immediately hooked by the opening paragraph and the narrator’s gravelly, fast paced “Bronxy” voice.

I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles

For me an audiobook is completely at the mercy of the narrator; if the voice, inflection, pace etc doesn’t grab me, that’s it, no matter how enjoyable the writing. In this case both work so well together. From the word go I became absorbed in the life story of Augie, a poor Jewish boy born to a simple minded mother and a long ago absented father in the Chicago of the early decades of the 20th century (Al Capone, Prohibition era.)

I was impacted by Bellow’s sentences let alone the epic tale full of vivid, larger than life characters trying to get ahead and live the American dream. It did require very focused listening so as not to miss out on the richness of the language or get mixed up with the many characters. Also it’s a long book and there’s a limit to the amount of sitting around listening an able bodied person can do. So I’ve been doing a kind of relay – listen, read the book, listen and knit, read the book.

So many knockout sentences but I’ll leave those discoveries to you if you so choose! Except for another little taste, a description of Grandma Lausch, Russian pogrom refugee, not really Augie’s grandmother, but ruler of his childhood household nevertheless.

She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, an autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuitical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned feet immobile on the shoekit and stool Simon had made in the manual-training class, dingy old wool Winnie(her dog), whose bad smell filled the flat, on the cushion beside her.

Augie takes us on a series of often bizarre adventures, as he tries  on different lives inspired by people he comes across, on into post WW2 America; ultimately most are a wrong fit. He never does settle but in the end he celebrates the ride. Martin Amis, among many others, called this “The Great American Novel”. Worth checking out.

Cover of The LacunaBarbara Kingsolver is another great American writer and, apart from her wondrous ways with words, she has the gift of being able to narrate her own work with a warm, clear and expressively easy to listen to voice. She takes on different characters and different accents with aplomb. Hearing her read The Lacuna, probably the finest of her novels, is a real treat. I love this book and find her narration adds to its magic.

I listened to it as a pre-loaded digital audio book from CCL’s Playaway Collection that let me listen while moving about and “getting on with things”.

This story, coincidentally, covers the same time span as Saul Bellow’s novel. Very briefly, for readers who haven’t caught up with The Lacuna, the story’s protagonist is Harrison W Shepherd born, like Augie March, in the 1920s in the USA to a less than ideal family situation.

It takes us for a time to Mexico and into the lives of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera and of Lev and Natalia Trotsky who are hiding from Stalin and his Secret Police. Harrison in his early 20s becomes part of these two remarkable households as cook, secretarial assistant and friend. He is “uncurious about politics”. He cares about people and writing. He becomes inextricably involved. Consequently he is devastated by the eventual murder of Trotsky at the hand of a guest he himself invites into the guarded house, and by the confiscation of his own writings along with Trotsky’s.

Oh… I just had to delete a big paragraph outlining more of the plot! Hard to keep quiet when you fall in love with a character(s) and feel honoured by knowing them, their aspirations, trials, hopes and sorrows, the burden of events beyond their control. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about friendship, art, history, the Cold War –  its propaganda and witch hunts, the damage of Press inaccuracies and lies and the fragility of a man’s heart and of his reputation. It looks to be a tragedy and in many ways it certainly is but the ending is a not. It’s a very rich listen!   According to Muriel Rukeyser a US poet of the same era as our two stories said,

The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.

I reckon we’re never too old, too busy or too anything, to bend our ears to a gifted story teller.