Most science fiction and fantasy movies nowadays get a tie-in novelization. Often, these adaptations reincorporate scenes that were deleted from the final cut of the film (as Jason Fry’s The Last Jedi recently did). They can also let readers peer into a character’s private thoughts, something notoriously difficult to do on screen (see David Lynch’s Dune adaptation). The Shape of Water novel by Daniel Kraus is something rarer and altogether more interesting. According to io9, Kraus pitched the story to Guillermo del Toro several years ago. Although Del Toro’s film The Shape of Water came out first, they agreed that each would tell their own version of the story through their respective mediums. In other words, Kraus’ book is not simply an adaptation of the film, but a unique and original telling of that story.
This sort of cross-medium collaboration is surprisingly rare. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke famously worked together to create 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Clarke writing the novel and Kubrick directing the film. The two works were intended to complement each other, with the movie providing fantastic visuals and the novel providing background and a clearer narrative. The benefit to a collaborative approach is that we get to see how two different storytellers approach the same material (although unfortunately tensions between Clarke and Kubrick undermined 2001). For The Shape of Water, the film combines del Toro’s visual flair, Alexandre Desplat’s memorable soundtrack, and the cast’s acting to bring the story to life. Kraus’ novel adds layers that are only hinted at in the film.
The novel and the film both tell the same basic story, but by centering each chapter on a character’s point of view Kraus’ telling has a very different effect on the reader. Some of the secondary characters, such as Richard Strickland, receive far more attention. The book starts off with Strickland’s trip to the Amazon to capture Deus Brânquia, the fish-man creature. Over the course of the book, readers can follow along as Strickland loses his grip on reality. The book never tries to justify Strickland’s actions, but he does come across as a much more damaged character than the movie implied. He’s not just an overly zealous security guard.
The novel also contains an interesting subplot featuring Strickland’s wife, Elaine, who barely appears in the film. Elaine is very much a 1950s housewife on the road to discovering the 1960s. Like the other protagonists in the story, she is someone who typically wouldn’t feature as a protagonist in a story set during the early 1960s. While I can understand why del Toro cut her story from a two-hour film (time is money…), her story complements and even occasionally intersects the main story in interesting ways.
Kraus even includes several chapters from the point of view of the Deus Brânquia. Unfortunately, these don’t work quite as well. I appreciate that Kraus chose to write in a different style to convey the unknowability of the Deus Brânquia, but in practice these chapters simply come across as rambling streams of consciousness. Fortunately, there are only 2-3 short chapters written in this style.
A surprisingly large proportion of Kraus’ The Shape of Water is dedicated to setting up the characters and the situation. I might have found myself frustrated with the pacing if I hadn’t already been invested in the characters and the story. I recommend reading the book after watching the movie. It really does work best as a complement to the film, a chance to reexamine the characters and rediscover the story from their perspective.