In fiction, a fish out of water theme is a story paradigm that places the main character in a world totally foreign to the world he or she is accustomed. Commonly a vehicle for comedy, it can also be used in other genres including drama, romance, action and science fiction.
In Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd’s 1983 film, Trading Places, Eddie Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a street hustler begging for spare change. Dan Aykroyd is Louis Winthorpe III, a successful commodities broker working for two eccentric millionaires, brothers Mortimer and Randolph Duke. One brother places a wager with the other that by switching Billy Ray with Winthorpe, the former will become a successful businessman, and the latter, minus his wealth and status, will resort to crime. Billy Ray is plucked from the streets and given Winthorpe’s position and opulent mansion, while Winthorpe winds up in the streets, accused of crimes he didn’t commit. What ensues is one of the most successful fish out of water comedies of all times.
In the 1991 comedy, Switch, Perry King plays Steve Brooks, a lying, chauvinist womanizer, murdered by three of the women he wronged. In the afterlife he’s given a second chance to redeem himself by winning the genuine love of just one female, with a catch; he must return as a woman deprived of his manly charms. Ellen Barkin plays the reincarnated Steve Brooks as “his sister” Amanda Brooks. Steve, now as Amanda, finds himself on the other side of the same chauvinistic behavior he once doled out, while struggling to save his soul. In this case the comedic fish out of water theme is expressed through a change of gender rather than environment.
In another twist on the theme, Jim Carey plays successful defense lawyer, Fletcher Reed, in the 1997 film, Liar Liar. After breaking too many promises to his young son, a birthday wish that “Dad won’t lie for 24 hours” comes true. Unable to stop himself, Fletcher finds to his horror that he cannot tell a lie… not to the receptionist about her new haircut, or to the judge about his client. The formerly charming Fletcher that flattered, conned and lied his way to the top of his game finds himself having to deal with life in a totally unexpected way while trying to save his sanity, client, career and family.
The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage as biochemical weapons specialist, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, and Sean Connery as ex-con, John Mason, is an example of an action film that successfully used the fish out of water theme to heighten tension. In this 1996 film, Goodspeed is a meticulous FBI lab geek without field experience. Through a twist of fate, he’s called up to join forces with Mason to save San Francisco from a chemical weapon, threatened by ex-military dissidents holed up on Alcatraz Island. Mason is the only one who can break into Alcatraz, and Goodspeed, the only one who can disarm the highly dangerous chemical weapon. Goodspeed’s total lack of field experience makes the mission a nerve-wracking terror for his character and viewers alike.
Many films mix story paradigms to create interesting dynamics. For example, the classic 1979 Alien had elements of the fish out of water theme. A ship of homebound miners are awakened from cryo-sleep to find they are nowhere near Earth. Instead, “The Company” sent instructions via the ship’s computer to awaken the crew in order to investigate an S.O.S. emanating from a nearby planet. The blue-collar workers are totally unprepared and incapable of dealing with what they find.
From a boy stuck in a man’s body (Big), to a lovable alien stuck on Earth (E.T.), the fish out of water theme has been a successful story paradigm that speaks not just to our funny bones, but to the anxieties we feel when forced to step outside of our comfort zones. The paradigm can build suspense and tension or laughter and lightness, thanks to the creativity of capable writers who use it to full effect.