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New Lawsuit Claims “The Shape Of Water” Ripped Off A 1969 Play

Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated film faces a lawsuit alleging plagiarism of playwright Paul Zindel’s play “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”

New Lawsuit Claims “The Shape Of Water” Ripped Off A 1969 Play
Michael Shannon , Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water, 2017. [Photo: Kerry Hayes/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation]

The Shape of Water has the most Academy Award nominations this year with 13, including Best Picture. Now, just in time for Oscar voting, a new lawsuit could threaten the film’s chances.

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The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Zindel filed a lawsuit Wednesday, claiming that The Shape of Water ripped off his father’s 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper. In the play, a cleaning lady in a lab attempts to rescue a dolphin that’s slated to have its brain dissected. In The Shape of Water, a janitor (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a humanoid water creature (Doug Jones) that’s being held captive in a military lab.

In the lawsuit, Zindel claims the “Defendants have plainly incorporated numerous copyright protectible [sic] literary elements,” and that The Shape of Water producer Daniel Kraus knowingly cribbed his father’s work:

Significantly, KRAUS is both on record as an admirer of Zindel’s work, and came up with the “idea” for the Picture the very year the A&E production of Zindel’s Play first aired on national television. These and other telling details from the writing and production of the Picture strongly evidence that Defendants knowingly infringed Zindel’s Play. Indeed, without Zindel’s Play, which artfully blended an emotional human drama with a highly original science fiction story, it is difficult to imagine that the Picture could have connected so profoundly with audiences and critics.

But according to a statement in Variety, The Shape of Water‘s distributor Fox Searchlight isn’t having any of it:

“These claims from Mr. Zindel’s estate are baseless, wholly without merit, and we will be filing a motion to dismiss. Furthermore, the estate’s complaint seems timed to coincide with the Academy Award voting cycle in order to pressure our studio to quickly settle. Instead, we will vigorously defend ourselves and, by extension, this groundbreaking and original film.”

This lawsuit stands to devolve into a case of “he said, he said” since director Guillermo del Toro has gone on the record stating that The Shape of Water has been marinating in his head since he saw Creature From the Black Lagoon when he was seven years old.

“The creature was the most beautiful design I’d ever seen […] And I saw him swimming under [actress] Julie Adams, and I loved that the creature was in love with her, and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together,” del Toro said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “When I was in my thirties, I went to Universal and I said, ‘Can we do the movie from the point of view of the creature?’ They didn’t go for it. I said, ‘I think they should end up together.’ They didn’t go for that, either.”

The chances of Zindel’s lawsuit derailing The Shape of Water‘s Oscar showing are slim. The terrain for intellectual property is often too murky for accusers like Zindel to build a case with any traction. A previous claim that del Toro’s latest movie stole ideas from a 2015 student film came and went in January. Moreover, accusations of plagiarism against high-profile films crop up like clockwork every year, especially around this time. But hey, maybe more people will read Let Me Hear You Whisper now, so there’s that.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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