M. Night Shyamalan completist Stevi Costa puts her lit degrees and close-reading skills to good use and calls bullshit on the confused posturing of Lady in the Water.

I review all of the M. Night Shyamalan films that pop up on Ten Years Ago. I’m a Shyamalan completeist, and I’ve got to see everything he does. Not because these things are especially good, but because when they crash and burn, they do so in spectacularly awful ways. I appreciate things that are both very good, and very bad. I don’t appreciate mediocrity, and with Shyamalan, you either love a thing or you hate it. There is no in-between. And I fucking hate Lady in the Water.

Lady in the Water is a fable, a fairytale, a bedtime story, a myth or whatever you want to call it about a race of mermaid-muses from the Blue World called Narfs who infuse the human world with magic and creativity. The human world has lost touch with the Blue World, however, and that’s why the human world is full of bad stuff. So one Narf, who is actually a very special Queen Narf called Story, appears in the pool of an apartment complex managed by Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heep. Heep, of course, has no idea who this mysterious, beautiful woman is or why she suddenly turned up in his pool. Story tells him her name and that she’s here to meet a writer and inspire him. (Let me be as literal as Shyamalan for a moment: A STORY HAD TO FIND A WRITER.) Heep goes around the apartment complex trying to locate a writer, and also learns the bedtime story about Narfs from a young Korean woman and her mother. This is redundant information for the audience because the film begins with some shitty, pictogram animation and narration about the separation of the Blue World and the human world, and the role of the Narf. Cleveland introduces Story to Vick, played by director M. Night Shyamalan, the writer whose work will go on to inspire and change humanity. Vick is inspired, and now that Story has done her job, she can return home to the Blue World. But here’s where things get dangerous: there are grassy-backed wolves called Scrunts that are hell-bent on killing the Narf before The Great Eaglon can descend to pick her up and fly her back to the Blue World. Cleveland keeps returning to his Korean tenants to learn more about the fable, and find out what he has to do to keep Story safe from the Scrunts and get her home. He also consults with a film critic to teach him about narrative tropes and genre. Cleveland then assembles a team of residents who fulfill the symbolic roles laid out in the bedtime story to help him figure out how to get her home. There are, of course, trials and errors, but eventually the narrative puzzle is solved and The Great Eaglon descends during a pool party at the apartment complex, carrying Story safely home.

Shyamalan’s previous films trade in mystery, but there’s no mystery here because the narrative is spelled out for us at the beginning in the terrible animated pictograms. We know everything that’s going to happen, and there is nothing about Lady in the Water that purports to upend, rework, or challenge the genre conventions it spends so much of its time laboriously spelling out for the audience. The signature Shyamalan “twist” in this film is that when Cleveland is tasked with finding a Symbolist (a person who can interpret signs), a Healer (self-explanatory), a Guild (a group of people with many hands who work together), and a Guardian (Story’s protector, presumed to be himself), he initially chooses the “wrong” people, and then must return to the pool of residents in his building to find the “right” people in order to make Story’s story work. Cleveland blames his misinterpretation on the advice given to him by the film critic, but we all know that a hero has to face a set of trials on a journey because we’re all familiar with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Heep’s misinterpretation of the archetypical roles in Story’s tale is par for the course.


But the characters in this film, who seem to simultaneously know so much and so little about stories themselves, don’t understand the mistake as part of the story they’re in. “Who would be so arrogant as to presume to know the intention of another human being?” Mr. Dury queries when Cleveland explains that he was following someone else’s advice. The film answers this question by cutting to Bob Balaban’s critic character — the person to whom Cleveland has been deferring to understand narrative tropes for the entire film. Clearly, Shyamalan’s choice to insert the critic as the answer to this question is an unsubtle critique of the role of criticism. Or perhaps I, too, am being arrogant in that assumption. But I don’t think I am, because Shyamalan’s next move for the critic character is to dispose of him. He is the only character in this family-friendly, totally non-scary “horror” movie that dies at the hand of one of Shyamalan’s stupid grassy-backed Scrunts. Before Balaban’s character is dispatched, however, he delivers the following monologue:

“A dog inside the building. Go! Shoo! Why, you’re not a dog at all. My god, this is like a moment from a horror movie. This is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character. But, in stories where there has been no prior cursing, nudity, violence, killing or death, such as in a family film, the unlikeable character will narrowly escape this encounter, and be referenced later again in the story, having learned valuable lessons. He may even be given a humorous moment to allow the audience to feel good about him. This is where I turn to run. You will leap for me, I will shut the door, and you will land a fraction of a second too late.”

But the Scrunt is not too late, and the critic dies, effectively punished for “misinterpreting” the story. (Even though it’s actually Cleveland who misapplies the critic’s perfectly valid genre analysis.) The metaphor, like everything else in this fucking film, is blatant: critics are arrogant because they think they know better than authors, and therefore they have no place in storytelling.

My job is reading and “interpreting” narratives — both literary and cultural. My training as a close reader enables me to search through stories not for some kind of singular, frunifying meaning, but for possibilities. I am less concerned with figuring out what the writer is trying to do (which makes no sense when you’re tracking broader cultural narratives with multiple authors, sources, or origins), than I am with how narratives shape or are shaped by ideologies. To suggest that there is a prescriptive, “correct” way to read any given literary or cultural text is wildly limiting. Shyamalan’s deference to the author in his critic-killing move is an expressivist point of view, one which places stock in the work’s relationship to the author and his genius, imagination, and emotion. I’m intentionally making my author masculine in that sentence not only to link this back to the ways in which Shyamalan thinks of himself, but also because expressivist ways of reading emerged during the Romantic period, where these imaginative, emotional geniuses were mostly men. I think expressivist criticism, which tends to focus on reading the ways in which texts were influenced by an author’s life, can be at times illuminating. (Consider reading Frankenstein again, knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother died giving birth to her, and that Shelley herself suffered several miscarriages.) But more often than not, I find that reading through an expressivist lens closes down the possibilities of a text. When we read thinking only about how the “genius” of the creator influenced the text, that story becomes the official narrative. (e.g. Tennessee Williams’s sister Rose was the model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie. While this is objectively true and Williams’s memoirs confirm it, focusing on this fact prevents us from thinking about mental health as a larger idea at the time Williams was writing, or any other far more interesting insight.) It’s as though Shyamalan didn’t get Roland Barthes’ memo that the author was dead, that once you create an artistic product and release it into the world, you, as creator, no longer have control over what anyone does to your story.

But, of course, Lady in the Water is entirely about having control over Story herself, as the community of readers/interpreters she encounters in the apartment complex ultimately do shape her narrative in order for her to return home. They don’t do this, however, according to their own will, but to the symbolic constraints placed on them by the proto-narrative — the creative/creation myth we are forced to sit through in shitty animated pictograms before the actual film narrative even starts. Shyamalan’s narrative wants to have it both ways: it purports an expressivist perspective on the author, but also seems to suggest that stories (and the literal Story) exist prior to being “authored.” Story is being authored by a group of people, but also by her proto-narrative. And that story, the proto-narrative, itself has no author. The film admits in its very structure, then, that there are multiple ways of reading, and yet it goes out of its way to suggest that critical reading is invalid, and that non-authorial interpretations are incorrect, that they don’t make the story work. The reading community of this apartment complex all must agree on an interpretation of the generic tropes of Story’s story in order to get her home.


I find Lady in the Water’s tension between textual authority and authorial authority to be an interesting thread — one which is also a key tension in literary criticism. But the third component in the matrix of meaning making is the reader, and the readers in this film get little credit. The interpretive community in the film has to work out the details of the text, and “interpret” it in order to understand what it means. They’re given some power in this film — the power to help Story get home — but only if they are willing to go along with Story and not question what’s happening. The critical reader is not empowered. The critical reader is killed . . . and yet it is only through the knowledge and guidance of the critical reader that the interpretive community of the film is able to do anything at all. Does Shyamalan not realize that his obvious critique of critical reading makes no sense, given how implicitly the narrative is driven by the work of the critic? It seems that Shyamalan’s understanding of the role of the reader is limited to their ability to turn pages, driving the narrative forward through the act of reading. But that’s all. Readers aren’t writers. They aren’t meant to make their own narratives, or to attempt to see beyond the surface of the words on the page, which might be okay in the case of Lady in the Water, as it’s decidedly not deep.

That may seem harsh, given that I took the time to think about how this particular text positioned its understanding of the author-text-reader meaning-making triad. Frankly, I think I’m being generous by bothering to do the critical work of looking beyond the film’s eye-rolling superficiality. For as much as I think the narrative and its strict adherence to storytelling tropes might be working against its author by affording some agency to certain types of readers and to the text itself, there’s one perspective that seems to devour all others, and that’s the role of the author himself. Not only is Shyamalan the writer/director of this film, but he has also continued to misunderstand the Hitchcockian cameo by giving himself yet another part far larger than his acting abilities deserve. Shyamalan casts himself as Vick, the writer who needs to be inspired by Story in order to write a book that will change humanity. This reinforces the idea that meaning is located in the author’s intent, and, frankly, smacks of Shyamalan’s own ego.

This film isn’t doing anything revolutionary. His other films aren’t either. They are not changing filmmaking, and they contain no ideas that might shake up the status quo. Yet the writer/director casts himself in this role, and that suggests that Shyamalan believes his work is doing more than it actually is. He seems to think he has important things to say about storytelling, but everything about Story and her telling is rote.

One thing worth crediting Lady in the Water for is the diversity of its cast. While the two bankable leads of the film are white, the supporting cast is far more diverse than one would expect for a film made in 2006. The apartment complex Cleveland manages houses Latino families, Korean families, erudite Black families, South Asian families, and some lonely old white people. A young Korean woman and a thirtysomething South Asian woman have very large speaking roles. In fact, Young-Soon, our young Korean college student, carries the burden of narration in this film. While on the one hand it sucks that all of her lines exist to explain something to a middle-aged white dude, the content of her explanations depict her as a repository for knowledge in a way that is refreshingly unstereotypical. Hers the is the voice we hear most frequently as we learn more about Story’s world; she becomes the voice of authority, even as she is burdened with the role of translator for a white man. The emphasis on Jeffrey Wright’s crossword-obsessed Mr. Dury and his son are also striking. They are always shown working out puzzles, and always together. Rarely do we see Black characters depicted as intellectuals in mainstream cinema, and the Durys both fulfill that role in the film, as each is given a turn at being the “Symbolist” in Story’s homeward narrative. They, too, become voices of authority, and other characters in the film crowd around them to actively listen to the narratives they derive from their puzzles and cereal boxes.

But I’m also somewhat suspicious of how this diversity functions within a narrative about storytelling. I love that the supporting cast is so diverse, but in showing them all coming together and reading Story’s story the same way, Lady in the Water is replicating the notion of the universal human — something that a number of critical perspectives informed by race, gender, sexuality, and disability all show is a fallacy. As a lover of stories, there is a part of me that wants to believe art can have universal properties, but as a practicing writer, critic, teacher, and student in the humanities, it would be disingenuous to disempower a diverse community of readers by assuming they’ll all read exactly the same way.

I think the only truly universal observation Lady in the Water makes about writing is that a writer will do anything to get out of writing. Instead of working on my dissertation, I watched Lady in the Water. See? We’ll do anything.