Lady in the Water is a Shallow Attempt at Symbolism
Lady in the Water tries to be deep and creative, but M. Night Shyamalan’s fairy tale unfortunately comes off as petty and self-absorbed.
M. Night Shyamalan Spotlight
It’s difficult to say what caused M. Night Shyamalan to lose his groove. His two first movies — The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable — were major hits, solidifying him as a must-watch director. Though his next two releases were flawed, Signs and The Village still had some value. Then in 2006, he released a movie that was meant to be a bedtime story — a brand new tale of love, analogy, and monsters. This movie was Lady in the Water, and instead of being the next big thing, it made the rising hotshot director into a joke. Instead of deep and creative, Lady in the Water comes off as petty and self-absorbed.
Lady in the Water is a complicated story, with a lot to take in. To his credit, M. Night Shyamalan tried to do something new. He didn’t rely on existing source material and used common creatures from various folklore. Cleveland Heep (played by Paul Giamatti) is a superintendent who discovers a ‘narf’ named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) in his apartment complex’s pool. This pseudo-water nymph is on a quest to find The Author, an artist who will bring forth great changes to the world. The Author’s work, this story (the symbolism just oozes off the screen) will influence the best of minds and bring on world peace or some kind of great change. Before she can return to her own world, however, she is attacked by a scrunt, a wolf-like hunter that is also part plant. The only way to save herself from the creature is to recruit a team of experts to conduct a ritual to grant her safe passage to her home. She’s looking for a Symbolist, a Guardian, a Guild, and a Healer. It turns out that the quirky and kindhearted residents of the apartment complex might be the ones she’s looking for.
Story is soft-spoken and communicates in idioms or prophecies most of the time. Like the majority of Shyamalan’s films that include twists, the possibility that Story is either a real narf or simply a troubled girl is initially shrouded in mystery. That concept is quickly put aside, however, and the supernatural elements are proven real. This is a good change for Shyamalan’s typical tales, as audiences back then were usually expecting some kind of twist in his movies. With a little bit of hesitation, the residents don’t fully dispute the existence of the supernatural, but holding them back instead is their inability to accept that they somehow hold an important role in the story. Lady in the Water had the potential to be a good tale about one’s own importance, and pride, as just because someone may not have a role in the grander schemes doesn’t mean they don’t hold a different — and possibly more important — role somewhere else.
Aside from the weird story and the ridiculous names, Lady in the Water has two major problems: Vic Ran, and Harry Farber. Vic Ran is an up-and-coming author (played by M. Night Shyamalan himself). He is writing something called The Cookbook, a manuscript without much substance that contains a series of views and ideas. The problem is that he’s reserved and insecure about his own work; he’s not ready for it to be shared with the public. Yet with the help from Story, a strange women he just met, his opus will supposedly be inspirational and prophetic.
It’s not uncommon for a director to put himself in his movie; Tarantino does it all the time. The biggest difference is that Shyamalan made himself the savior of the story, the one person who will bring hope and joy to everyone in the world. ‘Story’ is telling the ‘Author’ that he is incredibly special. This obvious metaphor comes off as pretentious and self-absorbed, giving the impression that Shyamalan’s own writing is something of immense value to the world. There’s no subtly, and the message comes off more cheesy than important. If Lady in the Water cast someone else in the role, and made their work to be important to a smaller audience, then maybe he could have gotten away with it.
The other major problem is Harry Farber, played by Bob Balaban. He is a film critic, and he doesn’t get any kind of respect. It seems that this character was created as a strawman for critics in general who didn’t like Shyamalan’s previous movies. Harry is a snobby, weak-willed loser — selfish and callous, without any redeeming factors. This blatant symbolism is simply tactless, lazy screenwriting. Good critics back up their points and do their best to show the value in a piece of art, sometimes calling a movie bad because the movie is actually bad. Accusing the critic of being too critical when they have a point is poor sportsmanship. Lady in the Water could have used the critic as a better source for pride and worth, making the point that one person’s opinion is not the end of the world. In this rendition, however, his appearance comes off in poor taste.
Lady in the Water tries too hard to tell a bedtime story about overcoming fears and finding one’s true paradise, and its metaphors come off far too cruel and direct. Shyamalan could have made Lady in the Water into something sweet and prolific, but he went too heavy-handed with unironic self-gratification. That the movie wasn’t a critical or financial success adds insult to injury, showing that not all critics are monsters, and not all artists are visionaries. But one bad movie does not set an artist’s future in stone. His recent movies — like Split and Glass — suggest that he may still have a good story to tell.
September 22, 2019 at 4:10 pm
“‘Story’ is telling the ‘Author’ that he is incredibly special. This obvious metaphor comes off as pretentious and self-absorbed, giving the impression that Shyamalan’s own writing is something of immense value to the world.”
I didn’t see it that way. It’s not a declaration but the hope that his work (not necessarily this story, but his work in general) will be something of immense value.
October 19, 2021 at 4:08 pm
You’re an idiot.
March 13, 2021 at 1:03 am
The funniest thing is that YOU are the critic he was talking about. How you understood that metaphor which hurt your feelings and the one that explained MNS’ role which also offended you, but missed the point that then entire movie is a metaphor is the reason why you didn’t enjoy it. You were being too critical to realize his point. A good story with new ideas that twist and bend to create something new and unusual out of modern people is dangerous and difficult because it’s so delicate and can be destroyed without ever being given a chance. The father thought he was the interpreter, but the adults don’t get to interpret a story, the child does. The child finds the fun in waiting for the next part of the story and fills the gaps with imaginary and fun things, while you the critic are just trying to guess what will come next at every turn so you can call the movie bad. No one wants to be fooled twice like we all were at the end of Sixth Sense, but his job is only to create a good story, and to do that he has to try things that have never been done before. Telling a story is ancient, but to make it new it needs to be done in modern times, as MNS tells us directly in the movie. Watch it a second time and give it a chance. The story is completely unpredictable, the metaphors are great, the soundtrack is magical and the acting, especially by Giamatti is fantastic.
October 19, 2021 at 4:09 pm
January 17, 2022 at 9:26 pm
Exactly what Steven A’s comment addressed! LOL
Harris, your entire article is drenched in Irony. You LITERALLY became the very character, trope, and meaning of what Farber represented in Lady In The Water!
Admittedly, It ‘does’ seem to come off as a little pretentious to almost always show up in your own films. However, M.Night obviously placed himself in this particularly PROMINENT role, because (unlike his other cameos) he had the means and the motive to confront and showcase how some Critics tend to write about his work (or him personally) with such myopic views that you don’t even really talk about the underlying and beautiful messaging behind the film or it’s true protagonists.
Your complaints and biases regarding the film’s “Critic” character only sounds like you coming off as defensive, and it reveals the very thing that M. Night was talking about, like a self-fulfilling action taking place.
This type of metatexual scriptwriting and storytelling by Screenplay Authors (like The Wachowskis did with the Matrix series) is precisely what makes a movie like “Lady In The Water” that much more brilliant, enjoyable, and richer in Value. Because it brings out the nature of the Critic’s brusied Ego to have to confront their own fallacies and biases when it’s presented on camera – inadvertently writing a piece on how you DIDN’T appreciate the deeper significance or subtleties behind the movie to begin with.
Most of us who enjoyed this film were able to connect to this story intuitively as well as objectively. Any invested viewer of M. Night’s is already aware that his screenplays are gonna be eccentric and very thematic of deeper meanings, albeit a spiritually or world-conscious one. Even when folks don’t truly get the films or they just blatantly write these scathing reviews due to ignorance and narrow-minded viewpoints, no one can ever say that he wasn’t original. 🤷🏾♂️
February 13, 2022 at 3:47 am
Garber is alive and well. I love this movie. I will enjoy it over and over. I’m 61 yrs old. It’s the fantasy world I never could find in my youth. I lived a nightmarish adolescence. I think I’ll watch it again right now.
January 25, 2023 at 1:15 pm
Love the comments above! Lady in the Water IS “The Cookbook”, as all the metaphors are a recipe for sustained community. For me the half-warrior is the most obvious symbol, representing the role of an all-volunteer militia to displace a standing military (I grew up watching Star Trek, so I already understood that idea).
I love that the residents of the Cove are stumbling around most of the movie trying to understand rituals and customs that no longer persist in our hyper-hierarchical society, yet those customs must have been second nature to our ancestors. The beautiful thing is they are all willing to look foolish to save their own precious little community.