Making a Splash

The Mermaid of the North, Balintore

As Willy Wonka cribbed from Arthur O’Shaughnessy“We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of the dreams,” and it is interesting to note the motifs that arise over time, particularly in stories. As Martine Mussies observes, “The exploration of the recreation of myths gives us valuable insights in the complexities of human interactions… It creates a sense of continuity in societies, across generations, using the past as a foundation on which to build a better, or at least more ‘authentic’ and relevant, understanding of the present and future. The influences that shape fantastic beings like mermaids tell us so much about what it means to be human”. Mermaids have been a persistent fixture in folklore the world over for centuries and continue to appear in contemporary fiction. Plenty of merfolk besides the mermaid ‘exist’, “these include not only the mermen, but such creatures of the imagination as the seal-folk and the water horse or kelpie,” but mermaids seem to have won a special place on the narrative stage. Even still, it can be easy to treat such creatures of fantasy trivially; they are the stuff of glittery merchandise and 5-year-olds’ birthday parties, but I think this surface observation can be deceiving. Even the most whimsical of storytelling may have something worthwhile to share, and this sentiment is described beautifully in an interview with Neil Gaiman for World Refugee Day 2014. He talks about his cousin, Helen, who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War II; “She actually told me a story that made me realize that what I do is not trivial, because if you make stuff up for a living—which is basically what I do—you feel kind of trivial.” His cousin, Helen, had started teaching mathematics and grammar to the girls in the ghetto during the day:

“And at that point, you had a death sentence for possessing a book—books were illegal—but she had a Polish translation of Gone with the Wind that was slipped to her and she would keep it behind a loose brick in the wall and stay up late every night reading Gone with the Wind so that when the girls came in the next day, she could tell them what happened in the chapters she read that night. And just for that hour, they got out of the Warsaw ghetto… and I thought that actually changes everything: the idea that it’s not just escapism, it can actually be escape and it’s worth dying for.”

I think that stories have much more to tell that what is present at face value; storytelling is our shared human heritage and in a lot of ways, it makes us who we are. And while not everything can be a literary masterpiece or worthy of special merit, stories count, even those that take on a lighter—perhaps humbler—form.

Splash is a fantasy-romance revolving mainly around a mermaid who comes to New York City in human form. It was released in 1984 and in contrast to anything Orwellian, it is decidedly the ‘spoonful of sugar’ rather than the medicine. The movie is many things: a nod to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and mermaid folklore everywhere, a playful not-so-distant cousin to Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and basically the queen of all reasons to suspend disbelief now and then. In reference to Ron Howard’s role as director of the film, Tom Hanks mused that In lesser hands, a movie about a mermaid is just a kooky, kind-of fake movie and in a weird way, Splash is not a fake movie.” I had thought of it simply as a pleasant, rather amusing piece of storytelling, but it turns out that the film lays claim to some small historical interest as well:

  1. It’s basically Tom Hanks’s breakout role; at the time, Hanks was a relatively unknown actor. As director Ron Howard put it, “I remember thinking, nobody’s going to go to a Tom Hanks movie, but if you just care about casting the role, you couldn’t get anyone better.”

    © Touchstone Pictures

  2. Splash marks the birth of Touchstone Pictures, a film label created specifically to allow Disney to target an adult audience without tarnishing its G-rated reputation. “I thought it was neat that whatever this movie was going to do, it was going to be the first film underneath this new banner which has gone on to be incredibly successful…” — Tom Hanks
  3. As Hanks’s character, Allen, is trying to find a land-dwelling name for his mysterious new lover, he digresses to read out that they’ve arrived at Madison Avenue. When she expresses that this is the name that she likes, Allen is quick to point out that “Madison’s not a name,” before cheerfully and hastily relenting. It pioneered the first name Madison for girls, a name that was “practically non-existent” before 1985 (but which reached as high as second place on the charts at its peak). Statistically speaking, the data is clear on this point. I briefly cross-referenced the following graph with the first of its primary sources, The United States Social Security Administration, and the emergence of Madison as a first name does clearly coincide with the year of Splash’s cinematic release:

Given Name: MADISON [source:]


It would be a galling omission not to mention the actor who plays Madison, Daryl Hannah; Hannah was not only able to act underwater for an impressive span each shot, but from years of practice in childhood, she also had the athletic chops required for the (fabulously specific) skill of swimming ‘mermaid-style’. This was discovered during the auditions for a mermaid stunt double—Hannah outdid them all and the decision was made not to hire one. Critics were also careful to note that, “the film would not be nearly so successful without the bulldozing presence of John Candy” (Candy plays the big-hearted, blowhard brother), and indeed it was a treat to see the Canadian actor on screen. While many have praised his comedic role, I was personally the most pleased with his surprising (and wise) brotherly advice near to the end of the film. Splash stars Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, John Candy, and Eugene Levy.

© Touchstone Pictures


See the source image



Go, and catch a falling star,

    Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me, where all past years are,

    ​Or who cleft the Devil’s foot,

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,

    Or to keep off envy’s stinging,

                And find

                ​What wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

John Donne, 1572-1632 (from the preface to Stardust—1999—by Neil Gaiman)

Victoria Murgante

About Victoria Murgante

Victoria is always looking for something good to read. Her claims to fame are taking guitar lessons from a friend of Raffi's (he was a great teacher!), contributing a three-word spoken part to a hard rock album in the early 90s, and owning a pair of pants that were hemmed by Michael Cera's aunt.

2 thoughts on “Making a Splash

  1. There’s definitely something about the idea of a mermaid that immediately brings up a feeling that it’s going to be problematic and/or nothing but a trope, but you’ve sold me on watching this! I usually avoid anything to do with mermaids (having also not been too sold on The Shape of Water, though I have to admit it was a visual feast), but if I think about it, I love the idea of mermaids and sirens in their more vicious, man-eating forms (maybe something about the subversion of power, especially because mermaids in popular culture tend to be presented as innocent, saccharine sweet naifs? Though I suppose if we think about it, the archetype of the siren lure – the attractive female in control of her own sexuality being a trap that leads to a man’s demise – is problematic in its own way, in that it propagates the idea that women, especially those who are sexually liberated, are a danger to men and lead to men’s downfall, whether they go towards the siren call or reject it – or worse, are rejected by it. I remember an idea like this found in an excerpt I had read from an article from the National Post a little while ago about 12 Rules of Life by Jordan Peterson, though I haven’t read the book: ““For the men,” he writes, “that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date.”” ( Though now that I think about it, out of one of my favourite poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of the lines I remember most is “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/I do not think that they will sing to me”, so I get the feeling that the idea of mermaids being a trifling idea might have been absorbed and learned more than something that I actively had thought about and chose to reject. Again, there’s something odd about the way the interests of girls – in this case what I mean by that is that these glittery products are marketed towards girls even though I highly doubt girls have any more inherent interest in glittery things or mermaids or the combination thereof in comparison to boys of the same age, social conditioning notwithstanding – are reduced to trivialities and treated lightly. But I’ve digressed quite a bit.

    I really enjoyed the quote you had by Gaiman, about the importance of stories and how they can be used not just as a means of escapism (for which they most certainly can fill the role!), but actually allow someone to escape their current environment for that time. There’s a negative connotation that is associated with escapism, but personally I feel as though it depends on what you’re escaping to, for one, and also how/why you’re using this escape from your current realities. Thanks for this well researched post! I learned quite a number of things as I read through! 🙂

    1. I was excited about the size of this comment! It’s kind of like getting a full-sized chocolate bar instead of a mini-one.

      I had to cut a lot out of this post because it was running long, but my interpretation had been that mermaids embody an inbetweenness of sorts—they have something aquatic and something human to them simultaneously: a quality of occupying two possible realities at once. For us, this might manifest in an unknown (sort of like Schrödinger’s cat, where two contradictory possibilities are simultaneously true) or perhaps in a circumstance where a decision must be made. During the period in which the decision is not yet made (perhaps deciding between two potential apartments or two flavours of ice-cream), both possibilities are simultaneously true—two possible futures are equally ‘out there’. I had not ascribed too much weight to the sex of the mermaids, but you bring up some interesting points! As far as rejection is concerned, I think the gender of the rejected/rejector may be a false focus; in the original Little Mermaid, it is she who is rejected by the prince and I believe this came out of Anderson’s own experiences of lost love. The qualities that are alive in these stories can apply to all, I think. But more to your last point, I was indeed feeling trivial writing about mermaids (probably overcompensated for just a tad) and there may be more to it than the glittery merchandise, as you suggest! That said, Splash was decidedly a fit for the ‘breezy’ theme of the week. Stories with mermaids are not unilaterally shallow, but I think Splash may be a lot more akin to eating candyfloss than the contents of the plate on Canada’s newest food guide. A lot of the information included in this post is available on a documentary that’s part of the 20th anniversary edition, which is the one that the library owns. 🙂

      I’ve had a budding interest in Neil Gaiman—I read Stardust right around the time of this post’s writing and (along with the Harry Potter books) it was one of the reasons I was able to say that mermaids continue to appear in more modern works of fiction. Gaiman’s thoughts about stories and escape paint the beginnings of what I think is a much more interesting picture. It may come down to the nature of any artistic creation, be it music, sculpture, or glass blowing—the same transformation goes into storytelling. Gretchen Rubin touches on this when she describes writing a story about “a very complicated idea—the kind of idea that takes hundreds of pages to capture.” It doesn’t necessarily require all that length, but the idea is the same, that through stories something real but difficult to express is revealable. I especially like stories that surprise a person into seeing something in a new way; great examples include The Cracked Pot and The Empty Pot.

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