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Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water hit with plagiarism lawsuit

02.22.2018by: Cody Hamman

The Shape of Water Guillermo Del Toro Doug Jones

THE SHAPE OF WATER writer/director Guillermo Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor are nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar at next month's Academy Awards, but accusations have been floating around ever since the film was released that it might not be as original as it seemed. And the obvious influence of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON wasn't the issue. First, viewers began noticing similarities between THE SHAPE OF WATER and a 2015 Dutch short film called THE SPACE BETWEEN US - both films being about female custodians who rescue aquatic creatures from research facilities and use laundry carts to get the creatures out of the lab. The Netherlands Film Academy reviewed the situation and ruled that THE SHAPE OF WATER was not a rip-off of THE SPACE BETWEEN US.

But then another accusation surfaced, a claim that THE SHAPE OF WATER lifted story details from playwright Paul Zindel's 1969 play LET ME HEAR YOU WHISPER. Zindel's son David said, 

We are shocked that a major studio could make a film so obviously derived from my late father’s work without anyone recognizing it and coming to us for the rights."

The Guardian pointed out that 

in terms of the broad concept, specific plot points and some characters, the film has close similarities to Let Me Hear You Whisper, which was aired as a TV production nearly 50 years ago. ...

In both stories, a female cleaner works a night shift at a lab and falls for an aquatic creature that is the subject of mysterious science experiments. Both women develop a relationship by bringing food to the animal and dancing with a mop in front of the tank to the tune of a love song.

The two cleaner characters both learn to communicate with the creatures, and both labs are involved in secretive military operations. The protagonists both discover imminent plans to kill the creature, and both labs mention “vivisection”.

Both women also devise plans to rescue the animal and release it to the sea by sneaking it out in a laundry cart. In Let Me Hear You Whisper, named after a song lyric that the laboratory plays for the dolphin, the creature repeatedly says “hamper” to the protagonist, Helen, to encourage her to get a laundry cart.

Both women are friends with another janitor who helps them.

There are also substantial differences, but that is still quite a list of similarities. The LET ME HEAR YOU WHISPER plaigarism accusation is now going to court, as attorney Marc Toberoff has filed a suit in US District Court saying LET ME HEAR YOU WHISPER is 

a beloved work of fantasy/science fiction by an esteemed author, making the glaring similarities between the Picture and the Play too egregious to ignore.

Del Toro says he had never seen nor even heard of LET ME HEAR YOU WHISPER before making THE SHAPE OF WATER. He is disheartened that this lawsuit has been filed while Academy members are filling out their ballots, but is also determined to fight the accusation in court.

I really cannot stomach the timing of this accusation. It’s pretty transparent what is happening here. To me, it’s actually a relief to take something from the arena of opinion into the arena of fact and law."

Distributor Fox Searchlight has been dealing with the claims of Zindel's estate for weeks, and have decided 

that rather than succumb, they felt let’s take it to its ultimate realm, which is a court where we can defend ourselves. The way the play has been described, in the suit and along the way as these reports have appeared, it seems to be undoubtedly about a dolphin, and animal experimentation, about an animal being freed from a lab, and that is the end of it. The Shape of Water is so many things, so many colors. It’s not about an animal, it’s about an elemental river god. These ideas are not interchangeable or equivalent; this would be tantamount to saying that E.T. would be the same story if you substituted the alien for a hamster.

Our story and the layers are completely and entirely complex, interwoven with Russian spies, the Cold War, female friendships that are so complex and more important than that, which are completely original. The trope of an animal being liberated could be found in anything from Project X to Splash, to Born Free and Free Willy, to Starman, to an episode of Hey Arnold or The Simpsons. You could go on and on. You could also include The Day of the Dolphin, which in fact was written two years before the play. It’s not a groundbreaking plot element. And the beauty of this movie doesn’t boil down to a plot element from a play."

Fox Searchlight believes that the lawsuit being filed during the Academy voting cycle was an effort to pressure them into settling quickly. Del Toro hopes voters won't be deterred from voting for THE SHAPE OF WATER by this case, but will instead trust him when he says it was an original story, as he has always been very open about his influences in the past.

Extra Tidbit: Are you familiar with LET ME HEAR YOU WHISPER?
Source: Deadline

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