If you’re a modern science-fiction/fantasy fan, you have definitely heard of The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro saw Creature from the Black Lagoon and wanted to make a film from the perspective of that creature. But perhaps, if you are not an avid reader of my articles on The Portalist, you have not heard of the absolute legend of a sci-fi novel and film—the one that first declared fishmen deserve love too—Amphibian Man.
Here is everything you need to know about this iconic book and movie—and why you should consider this film a hidden gem.
What Is the Plot of Amphibian Man?
Amphibian Man started as a sci-fi adventure novel by Alexander Beliaev, a Soviet Russian writer. It was originally published in 1928 and adapted into a film in 1962. The story is set in Argentina, where locals of a pearl-diving seaside town are frightened by reports of a strange underwater fishman. Little do they know, a doctor named Salvator gave his son a life-saving transplant of shark gills. It is this son, now grown, who swims the ocean waters offshore.
Our heroic fishman is named Ichthyander, a name formed from the Greek words meaning "fish" and "man." Due to his gills, Ichthyander must spend most of his time underwater, but he still retains the ability to wander on land for short times. He dreams of what it would be like to live a normal life with the townspeople.
Out on the water, the beautiful Gutierre is betrothed to a greedy pearl-diving businessman, Pedro Zurita, as a way to settle her father’s debts. Gutierre flees Pedro’s advances only to fall overboard into shark-infested waters. Ichthyander, swimming nearby, is able to rescue her, and he falls in love at first sight. Against his father’s wishes, he sets out to the town to find Gutierre and confess his love, encountering the cruelties and wonders of life on land.
Gutierre falls in love with the kindly Ichthyander in return, and the two plan to run away together. However—SPOILERS—Pedro finds out about Ichythander, and he captures the fishman to force him to dive for pearls and build Pedro’s fortune. Caged underwater, Ichthyander must find a way to escape before he loses his ability to breathe on land forever.
Amphibian Man in Context
With its 1928 publication, the novel Amphibian Man came out just before science fiction’s Golden Age (circa 1930 to 1960), in a time when Soviet SFF literature was focused on utopias, questioning capitalism, and promoting living conditions for the working poor. Pedro’s greedy quest for Ichthyander’s pearl-diving abilities can be seen as a pretty clear cipher for industrialists. Advancements in technology and medicine led to a rise in novels questioning surgical practices and human consciousness. Amphibian Man in this way is a descendent of works like The Island of Dr. Moreau, only the surgeon in this book is a benevolent father trying to save his son instead of a hubristic man playing God.
The novel came out just before the Stalinist era, beginning in the mid-1930s, a time when SFF writers found themselves under heavy censorship, writing science fiction stories called “close aim,” which focused on stories of near-future industrial achievement and earthly travels. Films likewise often followed this same agenda, and it wasn’t until the 1950s and '60s, under Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policies, that the art form could branch out into a transformation known as the Thaw period (so-named after Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1954 novel, The Thaw).
While some experts argue that the Thaw period was motivated more by Krushchev’s own personal tastes than a love for freedom of expression, nevertheless, artists were free once more to focus on other topics than the near-future. It was during this time that director Vladimir Chebotaryov could release the 1962 film.
What Is the Film’s Impact?
While the film follows typical Soviet themes (anticapitalism, idealized support for the working poor), Ichthyander’s gentle nature stands in stark contrast to typical macho protagonists at the time. It’s reported that Soviet authorities were not too pleased by the movie, seeing it as too foreign and beautiful, but audiences loved this amphibious love story, giving the film an initial run of over 65 million admissions. It was the highest-attended Soviet film for over a decade.
The film is the first Russian feature film shot underwater, with captivating underwater choreography as Ichthyander dreams of duetting with Gutierre. If you watch this movie and wonder how much Guillermo del Toro pulled from this for The Shape of Water (2017), you’re not alone—many writers have noted similarities between the two (The Shape of Water even takes place in the same year Amphibian Man was released), but it’s more likely that the similarities are homage rather than straight plagiarism.
He wouldn’t be the only filmmaker to be inspired by our favorite fishman either. In an interview with The Moscow Times, Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favorites, telling the story of how he grew up watching a dubbed version on TV during the early 1970s.
But nothing holds a candle to this film’s sheer commitment to pure unbridled camp.
The Movie’s Just a Great, Fun Time
Listen, must a 1960s era sci-fi movie be good? Is it not enough to watch a fishman’s spangly bodysuit on a laptop screen, projected onto an apartment wall, large?
I have touted this film’s love story, its place in SFF literary history, its cultural impacts, but the truth of the matter is, Amphibian Man is the movie you watch with your friends to enjoy the outdated technology, the overblown drama, the extravagant iconography of a filmmaker released from Stalinist censorship.
Ichthyander’s fishman form is just the actor in a sparkly silver wetsuit with goggles! The soundtrack has some Latin pop bops! Music from the film went on to be danceable hits for years after! All the supposedly Argentinian characters speak Russian and we just go along with it!
It’s fun to try to make a sci-fi adventure seem so meaningful and weighty, and it’s true that Amphibian Man holds a special place in SFF cinema. But it’s also a silly movie with cheesy effects and goofy plot devices that captures the hearts of those who are earnest enough to check it out.
Which, I think, makes it the perfect bridge between hardcore SFF fans and casual viewers alike. Trust me, it’s both better and worse than anything you can imagine. Check it out on streaming sites if you’d like to watch it for yourself.
Featured image: Thierry Meier / Unsplash