Making a comparison between the Oscar front-runner and hit HBO series is not as far-fetched as you may think.
In a recent Variety article, Game of Thrones writer and The Shape of Water co-writer Vanessa Taylor briefly discussed the emotional connection both Thrones and Shape share. Attributing her Game of Thrones writing experience as a possible reason for being hired to write Shape, she told variety that:
“…the things I love about ‘Game’ are the things I love about this movie. Both use genre elements to explore the idiosyncrasy of human emotions. And even though ‘Game’ is set in a time and place that are foreign, it’s very relatable. It’s the same with ‘Shape of Water.”
At first glance, this comment could raise some eyebrows. After all, what does the fish movie really have in common with the dragon drama, even if they do share some genre elements? But thinking about it a little deeper, they actually do have striking similarities. As a Game of Thrones obsessive and a Shape of Water admirer, there’s no way I could let this go unexplored. They aren’t the same thing of course. And it’s clear that’s not at all what Taylor meant, but there is validity to her claim regarding their likeness, that goes beyond even her initial connection between the two.
First and foremost, both Shape and Thrones put strong female characters front and center. Elisa Esposito is the Daenerys Targaryen of the del Toro universe, breaking the wheel and setting the people free…or fish man in this case. Both start at the absolute bottom. They are underdogs who no one really expects greatness from, with Daenerys under the thumb of her despicable brother and Elisa beholden to her status as a mute cleaning lady. While their ultimate rises differ greatly, they both set out to create a more accepting world. One where ladies can be with fish men and women can rule in a man’s world. In a way, both were the “destined ones” for their specific stories. Elisa’s scars and mute condition prepare her for the journey she embarks upon when the fish man is brought into the lab. It is at that moment that she feels compelled to try and bridge the gap between humanity and life of all forms, later integrating herself completely into the underwater world with her newfound amphibian abilities. For Thrones, it is Daenerys, the unburnt dragon queen, who must take it upon herself to restore and reform her family’s legacy for the better. And both do not hesitate to reclaim agency over themselves and express who they are how they see fit.
Of course, alongside any characters attempting to bring justice to the universe, there is a bigot villain lurking about, who disagrees with this positive change. Often where films and TV shows usually provide some type of nuance within their antagonists, both Thrones and Shape also have very clear villains with no real redeeming qualities. Sure, Game of Thrones is known for portraying problematic characters that later turn out to be at least somewhat likable, but comparing Richard Strickland to say Ramsey Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon, then you’ve really got an evil force at hand. While not exactly torturous to physical extremes like Ramsey, Strickland in Shape actively sets out to make sure that the fish man is kept in a laboratory, and he is unable to see the humanity behind the creature he has captured. In fact, it’s unclear as to whether or not he makes any real differentiation between Elisa and the fish man. To him, they are the same: they’re both beneath him. Should they undermine him in any way, then all wrath be upon them. Characters like Ramsey and Joffrey act in a similar manner, consistently acting on their hunger for power, and in turn become evil almost for the sake of being evil at times. All demean the very individuals around them, and in Strickland’s case especially, dehumanize others, when in reality, it is them who feel the least human. Until their demise, they remain utterly unlikeable, and in each case, all of their deaths feel a little poetic.
One of the clearest similarities between the two that has been analyzed separately is that they both evidently emulate their inspirations, but with a twist. Before creating A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin was a traditional fantasy fan first. There are many elements of this displayed in Game of Thrones, such as Jon Snow as a more traditional heroic figure, but there are also much more than a few that heavily divert from classical fantasy, like the themes of evil and darkness that loom over Westeros. Thrones consistently sets up for the opportunity to fulfill some traditional fantasy journey, and give a potential hero the chance to save the day, and then diverts it almost every time. Same with del Toro, and his being influenced by classic Hollywood musicals referenced in Shape of Water, from Vincente Minnelli especially. Instead of Judy Garland, or famous figures like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire however, you’ve got Elisa and her amphibian lover. Both take on a comparable tone to the predecessors they revere, but both have their own unique takes on another way the story could go.
Perhaps the most notable of all their similarities, though, is that they both are unexpectedly popular. To have a fantasy TV show like Game of Thrones embed itself so deeply into the mainstream and reach such success is remarkable. And for a film like Shape, that deals with the romantic relationship between a human and a fish to be so beloved by many and also be a Best Picture front-runner, is also quite interesting. While del Toro is loved by the film community and has achieved success as a director over the years, and previous fantasy film franchises like Lord of the Rings possibly paved the way for the world’s interest in GoT, neither were safe financial bets in the beginning. Each requires a certain level of involvement and imagination from its viewers, and it was also unsure whether or not they would even be successful with audiences. So in this case, they were both underdogs in their respective mediums. Of course, there are fans of both, fans of neither, and fans of one or the other, but each of them are interesting conversation topics that provide pretty nuanced discourse.
Referring back to Taylor’s comment regarding their relate-ability, that could refer to a good many things. She notes their pull on elements of the fantasy genre and that they comment on the idiosyncrasy of human emotions, and this is all true. That being said, who one relates to in each of them can vary and the takeaways from each story can often be different. They’re works of fantasy after all and up to the individuals’ interpretation. But comparing the two closely, it’s clear there is more than meets the eye to the connections between these two phenomena. After all, it’s pretty certain already that both will be providing endless gifs and memes years into the future as they establish themselves fully into pop culture.