Elisa, the protagonist of The Shape of Water, may be mute, but how the film treats her speaks volumes about portraying characters with disabilities onscreen. For all its whimsical touches, director Guillermo del Toro’s enchanting magical-realist romance refreshingly takes the time to view her as a fully realized person.
Mainstream films about disabled characters tend to fall into one of three categories. There’s the triumph-over-adversity narrative, where a person becomes disabled through some circumstance and then must adjust to this new reality (the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, this year’s Stronger). Then there are stories where someone who doesn’t have a disability learns a grand lesson about human decency or handling difficulty through the struggles of someone with a disability (1988’s Rain Man, this year’s Wonder, and various love stories such as 1999’s At First Sight and 2016’s Me Before You). Even biopics about truly phenomenal people, such as the blind and deaf author and activist Helen Keller (various versions of The Miracle Worker) and writer and painter Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning turn in 1989’s My Left Foot), who had cerebral palsy, fall under this umbrella because the disabled character’s arc serves as inspiration for the audience.
Lastly, there’s the horror/suspense scenario where a person with a disability is put into peril because he or she can’t see, speak, or move like the audience at large and must find a way out of this predicament. Drug-seeking thugs terrorized Audrey Hepburn’s blind character in 1967’s Wait Until Dark, and even though his character was laid up only temporarily with a broken leg in a cast, Jimmy Stewart’s photographer in Rear Window still fits this bill.
Some of these stories, particularly the inspirational ones, certainly are well-intentioned, but they can miss the mark by reducing the character with a disability to a mechanism through which others find motivation and fulfillment. It’s rare in a mainstream film to see a character whose disability is just a trait, such as skin or hair color, that doesn’t completely define the person.
This is an issue close to my heart. My eight-year-old son has spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord that commonly causes some form of paralysis. He walks with the help of forearm crutches and leg braces and also uses a bright-green wheelchair, but as I’ve written previously, Disabled people don’t need Me Before You. We’ve got the Avengers, how he moves is such as small part of who he is that at times I think walking is overrated. He’s more than his feet.
And even though he’s not the target audience for The Shape of Water, I loved how in this film Elisa is more than how she communicates. She’s a woman who is sexual, intelligent, compassionate, witty, and adored by her friends—all before she meets her beloved.
Part of this is thanks to the brave and vulnerable performance of Sally Hawkins (Maudie, Blue Jasmine), which includes some nudity and—let’s face it—a character journey that’s not for everyone. Elisa, a night janitor at a government lab, falls for an amphibian man (frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films) dragged to the lab in 1962 from a South American river to research how astronauts might breathe in space.
Del Toro (Crimson Peak), who co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor (HBO’s Game of Thrones), has said that he was inspired by watching Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and wanting the woman and the creature to end up together. It’s no coincidence that this story about acceptance gives strong voices to Elisa’s friends: Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman and fellow janitor, both of whom would have been marginalized in that time period. They don’t get Elisa’s fascination at first, but they clearly adore her, find her funny and caring, and want her to be happy.
The film immediately telegraphs that we’re in unusual territory, with opening shots gliding down a hallway and through an apartment completely underwater while Giles in voiceover introduces this love story about a “princess without a voice” and a monster.
The monster turns out to be Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a G-man as cruel as he is ambitious. He tortures his quarry with a cattle prod and makes observations that we’re created in the Lord’s image, unlike that thing in the lab and, well, blacks. He’s pretty insufferable, and not as fully drawn as Elisa, but Shannon (Midnight Special, Nocturnal Animals) is as watchable as ever.
Elisa speaks in sign language (translated through subtitles), but she’s not voiceless, nor is she the trope of a princess to be rescued. She finds her prince not by kissing a frog, but by accepting him as he is, gills and all.
She’s first drawn to the amphibian man because she understands the need to communicate, to be heard, especially around others who might not listen. She brings the man hard-boiled eggs to share from her bagged lunch and plays him music on a portable turntable while she dances outside his tank, swinging her mop. (He likes Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.)
She also masturbates in the tub before work, picks up tap-dancing routines from classic films on TV, stands up for herself against Strickland, and designs a plan to spirit her fishy sweetheart to freedom.
In real life, disabled people face challenges that others may find tough to understand—but their lives also are about more than their abilities, complete with universal frustrations, dreams, aspirations, and accomplishments. I appreciate when storytellers seem to recognize that, whether it’s having a paraplegic astronaut (British actor Ariyon Bakare) in this year’s sci-fi horror film Life (his paralysis becomes irrelevant in zero gravity) or a deaf foster father (CJ Jones) who knows his ward (Ansel Elgort) is too good to be a crime boss’s wheelman in Baby Driver. Next year we’ll have a superhero, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine (Don Cheadle), fighting alongside his teammates in Avengers: Infinity War while using high-tech orthotics. (My son is thrilled to see him soaring in the trailer.)
Storytellers are naturally drawn to different settings, characters, and perspectives. If your story has a disabled character, develop that character as you would any other—beyond his or her abilities. The Shape of Water treats Elisa and her love with genuine respect. Like Ada (Holly Hunter), the mute pianist in Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano, she responds to someone who sees her without limits.
“When he looks at me, he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete,” Elisa says at one point. “He sees me for what I am, how I am. He’s happy to see me every day.”
That’s a desire to which anyone can relate.
Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist who now dives into fictional mayhem as an author (Quicklet on The Closer: Season 1), essayist, film critic, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She also writes for The Guardian, Bright Wall Dark Room, ScreenCraft, Hazlitt, Signature, and the blog for Final Draft, the top-rated screenwriting software used by the filmmaking industry. A member of Screenwriters of Tomorrow, she’s collaborated on short films and features, and she’s affiliated with the Tampa Bay Film Society. She lives in Florida. Find her online at valeriekalfrin.com.