Film

The Shape of Water and the history of interspecies love

It's not you – it's the scriptwriters. For decades, interspecies love in film has been doomed to failure. Ryan Lambie dives into the truth of unconventional romance

It’s one of the most common images of mid-20th century sci-fi and horror: an inhuman creature holds a young, usually unconscious, frequently scantily clad female in its arms. From giant apes (King Kong) to alien robots (The Day The Earth Stood Still) to aquatic monsters (The Creature from the Black Lagoon), it’s a genre staple that has turned up time and again in movies, on their posters, or on the covers of pulp magazines.

The Shape of Water, the latest horror fantasy from director Guillermo del Toro, is one of a far smaller group of movies to turn this ageing trope on its head. Set in the 1960s, it’s about a mute, lonely cleaner named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who meets and falls in love with an aquatic creature dragged back from South America and kept in a government facility by American scientists.

Ordinarily, the monster is the villain in these kinds of movies; del Toro, brilliantly, goes in precisely the opposite direction. Eliza and the creature’s love for one another is depicted as natural and pure, while the square-jawed, all-American male of the piece – a colonel played by a glowering Michael Shannon – emerges as the villain.

As del Toro explained ahead of The Shape of Water’s release, his inter-species love story was first inspired by childhood memories of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and his enduring affection for the 1954 movie’s Gill-man and his love for the leading lady, played by Julie Adams.

“The way I saw the movie, I was hoping they would end up together,” del Toro recently told me. “But not only do they not end up together, they kill the creature.”

The heroes are cleaners, the disabled and a homosexual artist – people who would have been marginalised in the year the film is set

The Gill-man’s fate in The Creature from the Black Lagoon is typical of most movie monsters from the last century. The giant ape in 1933’s King Kong, having fallen for Fay Wray, wound up tumbling from the side of the Empire State Building, riddled with bullet holes.

Indeed, the notion of monstrous, foreign creatures with a fondness for female flesh goes much further back: Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the 19th century saw its Transylvanian vampire travel to the British Isles, terrorise several women before succumbing to a stake through the heart.

While not explicit, sexuality bubbled under the surface in all these stories; the tagline for The Creature from the Black Lagoon reads: “Centuries of passion pent up in his savage heart!”

Even in Greek mythology, where gods often disguised themselves as animals to seduce mortal women, interspecies love between ordinary creatures and humans inevitably resulted in monsters: the Minotaur, for example, emerged from the union of Pasiphaë, wife of Minos, and a bull.

Amid the turbulent decades of the early 20th century, the image of the monster clutching the swooning female became a common fallback in western culture. Overwhelmingly, the stories described so far were written by men, so maybe it’s no surprise that, whether they consciously intended to or not, they had a habit of coming up with scenarios where upstanding heroes kill invading monsters and rescue their womenfolk.

In a period of uncertainty, which saw two world wars, the rise of communism and increasing social change as women and minorities demanded more rights, the status quo in fiction was maintained by a revolving door of brave, educated white males.

None of this is to say that the makers of these stories, such as Harry Essex and Arthur A Ross, who wrote The Creature from the Black Lagoon, didn’t at least share some sympathy for the monsters they came up with. Their monster is certainly beautiful as well as scary; King Kong certainly seems more engaging a character than the little humans that scuttle around at his feet. All the same, it’s telling that their love affairs are so brutally cut short.

King Kong certainly seems more engaging a character than the little humans that scuttle around at his feet

It was in the 1960s and 1970s, against the backdrop of the sexual revolution and second-wave feminism, that this longstanding trope began to be re-examined. The 1979 space horror Alien – essentially a B-picture with A-picture production values – was given a fresh twist with a story that saw its title creature prey on its male characters as much as its female, and where Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley emerged as the only survivor, rather than a helpless woman waiting to be rescued.

As the dusty old taboos surrounding same-sex or interracial relationships began to be pushed aside, so the relationships between humans and non-humans began to subtly change in cinema. In many cases, the depiction of these relationships varied wildly from the toe-curlingly awkward (Lea Thompson’s romp with an alien waterfowl in 1986’s Howard The Duck) to the amiably lightweight (Geena Davis falling for Jeff Goldblum’s hairy extra-terrestrial in 1988’s Earth Girls Are Easy).

Director Tim Burton has often played around with the conventions of interspecies relationships in his movies. The most obvious example is Edward Scissorhands (1990), a Beauty and the Beast-like fantasy about an artificial human (Johnny Depp) and an ordinary young woman from suburbia; amid the bullies, gossip and middle-class mores, their affair is simply too fragile to survive.

In his 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, Burton subverts the original film’s conceit of giving the hero a mute, human female love interest, and instead pairs Mark Wahlberg with Helena Bonham Carter’s intelligent ape, Ari.

dward-scissor-hands
It doesn't end well for Edward Scissorhands and Kim either

Tim Burton has long sided with the outsiders and the monsters in his work, then, and Guillermo del Toro continues the thread in his own movies. In The Shape of Water, the heroes are cleaners, the disabled and a homosexual artist – precisely the kind of people who would have found themselves marginalised in 1962, the year the film is set.

The central relationship between a woman and an exotic creature is cast as a celebration of difference rather than the fear of it. The monster, who’s the object of fear and rage on the part of the villain, is regarded as a kindred spirit by the heroine.

The relationship between a woman and an exotic creature is cast as a celebration of difference rather than the fear of it

“It’s just the Other,” del Toro says of his monster. “It represents the Other-ness, you know? And instead of turning him into a prince, like Beauty and the Beast, he reminds her of a part of her nature that was sort of locked, and he unlocks that for her.”

In terms of a diversity of voices, we still have a long way to go in popular culture –particularly in the film industry, where women and people of non-white backgrounds are still in the minority. All the same, The Shape of Water is a recent example of how old genre stereotypes can be subverted and moulded into something new, relevant, and satisfyingly heartfelt.

Ryan Lambie is a film writer and deputy editor of Den of Geek. His book The Geek’s Guide to SF Cinema is out now (Robinson, £12.99)

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him
Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, 1981.
Film

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts
Stephen Giddings in Stephen
Film

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts

She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany: 'Fear is not necessarily the worst thing to feel'
Tatiana Maslany Image: Alexei Hay
Film

She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany: 'Fear is not necessarily the worst thing to feel'

Love Lies Bleeding director Rose Glass on why women's muscles are still 'shocking and subversive'
Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart sitting close together in a gym, in Love Lies Bleeding
Film

Love Lies Bleeding director Rose Glass on why women's muscles are still 'shocking and subversive'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know