the snail trail

What’s Up With the Snails in Deep Water?

Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Studio

Spoilers follow for the film Deep Water, streaming on Hulu as of March 18.

In Deep Water, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation from iconic erotic-thriller director Adrian Lyne and screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, Ben Affleck’s Vic is a weird guy. We know this because his wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas), tells him he’s weird, and because his new neighbor, Don (Tracy Letts), also tells him he’s weird, and because Vic’s behavior is, frankly, weird! This man breeds snails as a hobby — the only thing that genuinely seems to make him happy — and I think I speak for all of us when I ask: What’s up with that? 

To be fair, Vic’s entire arc is a bit off. A computer-programming genius who is “rich as fuck” from developing a chip that helps military drones better find and kill their targets, Vic thrives in what the suspicious Don calls a “moral gray area.” He’s shruggingly blasé about the real-world effects of his invention. He’s angry at his wife for perpetually cheating on him, but then he’s also somewhat aroused by it. He jokes about killing people, then he does start killing people. Affleck’s performance is somewhere between the feigned Wife Guy energy of Gone Girl and the smirking duplicity of The Last Thing He Wanted, and nearly everything about his Vic is inscrutable.

But when Vic is in the garage of his palatial New Orleans home, amid the misting system and stacked aquarium tanks that hold his thousands of snails, Affleck plays the man as thoughtful and serene. During the film’s first scene in that garage, Lyne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld go from close-ups of the snails’ whirled exoskeletons and protruding tentacles to a close-up of Affleck’s eyes, gazing with what can only be described as affection at the snails sliding along his hand. Over and over, Deep Water suggests that these snails are both Vic’s primary passion and a reflection of his oddness. He threatens Don while casually brandishing an electric drill in the garage, and he decides to kill Melinda’s new guy, Tony (Finn Wittrock), as soon as Tony suggests an escargot appetizer. “The snails aren’t for eating. They’re not for anything,” Vic says, but that’s not exactly true. They are the only beings around which Vic can be truly himself, and their combined effect — a little bit revelatory and a little bit sinister — is both lifted from Highsmith’s personal life and a recurring element of her fiction.

None of Highsmith’s other major adapted works feature snails: not Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January, or Carol. But Highsmith’s interest in snails goes back to her time at Barnard College, where she studied zoology for a year and “felt a strong tenderness for animals, particularly cats and snails, both of which she kept as pets,” writes Andrew Wilson in his biography Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. The self-described “strange pastime” included observing and writing about the unique mating rituals of land snails, which are nearly all hermaphroditic. Eventually, her friends and colleagues told Wilson, she would keep 300 snails in the back garden of her Suffolk home; bring them along, 100 at a time, in her handbag to parties as “her companions for the evening”; and smuggle them into France when she moved there. Former editor Larry Ashmead told Wilson a story about how Highsmith “was sneaking them in under her breasts. She said that she would take six to ten of the creatures under each breast every time she went. And she wasn’t joking — she was very serious.”

Highsmith’s gastropod gusto made its way into her work, in the 1957 novel Deep Water and with two short stories that positioned the creatures as sources of obsession and fear: “The Snail-Watcher” and “The Quest for Blank Claveringi,” both of which were published in the 1970 collection The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories. Tim Lewis’s cover illustration of a man with two snails over his eyes is inspired by the protagonist of the first story, which Highsmith’s agent in 1947 called “too repellent to show editors.” In it, brokerage firm partner Peter Knoppert sets up 30 glass tanks and bowls in his study to pursue snail breeding, an “unusual and vaguely repellent pastime” at which he succeeds greatly. Knoppert is drawn to how the snails “come together in a kiss of voluptuous intensity,” and Highsmith sketches Knoppert as a haughty man proud of his knowledge of the “sensuality” of the snails’ mating process.

His attempt to control nature spins out of control, though, when after nearly three weeks away from the room, he returns to find it completely overtaken by tens of thousands of snails. They’re all over every visible surface, weighing down the room’s wallpaper and even forming a sort of chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and they trap him inside, overwhelm him by sliding all over his body and into his mouth, and consume him. The image of snails “quietly making love,” which started Knoppert’s obsession, is also the last one he sees as he dies.

In “The Snail-Watcher,” Highsmith’s prose finds horror in the ordinary (“He could feel them gliding over his legs like a glutinous river, pinning his legs … His vision grew black, a horrible, undulating black”), while “The Quest for Blank Claveringi” is more fantastical. The story follows zoology professor Avery Clavering, who “very much wanted to discover some animal, bird, reptile, or even mollusk to which he could give his name: Something-or-Other Claveringi.” Despite warnings from other researchers, he travels to the Matusas Islands, where he has heard of giant, man-eating snails that he hopes to name as his ticket to scientific and academic fame. You can guess where the story goes from there. The snails are giant, with shells that are 18 feet in diameter, and they do eat men. The piece’s last line gives Clavering an end that is similar to Knoppert’s: “He was waist-deep when he stumbled, waist-deep but head under when the snail crashed down upon him, and he realized as the thousands of pairs of teeth began to gnaw at his back, that his fate was both to drown and to be chewed to death.” And in Beautiful Shadow, Wilson also describes a third story about snails that Highsmith considered writing, about “an apocalyptic, postnuclear world” in which humans returning to repopulate Earth have to battle mutated, carnivorous snails.

Deep Water’s snail element seems almost mundane in comparison. In Highsmith’s novel, Vic — like the author and like Knoppert — is fascinated by watching the snails mate, so much so that it has become his only hobby. He has named the snails Edgar and Hortense; he believes they’re “genuinely in love”; and he’s frustrated by Melinda’s growing disinterest in them as her infidelity becomes more brazen (“You used to think snails were interesting and that a lot of other things were interesting, until your brain began to atrophy,” he says). The film adaptation of Deep Water doesn’t lift all these details, but the ones Helm and Levinson do choose are effectively used to honor Highsmith’s original intent for the character. In spending time with and even sleeping in the same room as the snails, Vic finds intimacy and tranquility that remind him of what he and Melinda once had. In the film’s first garage scene, Lyne communicates without dialogue Vic’s observation from the book that “the snails still loved his hands, crawling slowly but unhesitatingly onto the forefinger that he extended to them.”

And when both versions of Vic muse about how far snails will travel to find their partners (“Crossing garden walls,” he says in the book; “A snail will climb a 12-foot wall to find its mate,” Vic tells Don in the movie), what Vic is really alluding to are the things he’s willing to do to track down his wife. This portrait of Vic as a man driven primarily by loyalty and desire is supported by the film’s changed ending, which alters what Highsmith put on the page. Instead of Vic killing Melinda and being arrested, Melinda finds the wallet of one of her missing lovers among the snails in the garage (after stepping on one, a gross moment taken from Knoppert’s wife in “The Snail-Watcher”).

But instead of turning Vic in, Melinda lets him know that she found the wallet and burned it, destroying the evidence and helping Vic cover up his crime. It’s an expression of, if not tacit approval, then at least begrudging respect on Melinda’s part toward Vic, and it aligns with what Highsmith had told her friends about the character. “He’s mentally a bit odd, but at least he finally has a go. At least he tries,” Highsmith said, according to journalist Craig Brown. And so Deep Water’s opening and closing scenes mirror each other, with Melinda watching Vic come back to their home from a long mountain bike ride — in snail vernacular, climbing his own garden wall to reclaim her — and finally, she’s letting herself be found. Edgar and Hortense would be proud.


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What’s Up With the Snails in Deep Water?