It’s said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but too much can land you in court. The Shape of Water, the current Best Picture front-runner helmed by acclaimed Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, is being sued for alleged plagiarism.
The lawsuit was filed in US District court on behalf of playwright Paul Zindel, who believes the sci-fi/fantasy romance is a copy of his 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper. Zindel’s story follows a “janitorial cleaning women” trying to free an abused dolphin from a science lab. This isn’t the first accusation that del Toro’s feature borrowed elements from another work. Students from the Netherlands Film Academy believed the premise was similar to their short film about a female janitor “who comes to the rescue of an amphibious humanoid in a laboratory.” Considering the short was made while The Shape of Water was already in production it was deemed that no theft occurred. Similarly, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet alleged a dance scene in The Shape of Water hewed closely to a scene in his 1991 feature Delicatessen.
Unlike those other accusers, Zindel’s suit is the first to go the legal route and it’s the first time del Toro has refuted any claims of plagiarism. When asked about Zindel’s claims del Toro told Deadline, “I have never seen or read the play” nor did his producer Daniel Kraus, who is also named in the suit. Del Toro further alluded that this might be a campaign meant to knock the film off its Best Picture perch. Accusations like this tend to happen closer to awards season. For his part del Toro says, “It’s pretty transparent what’s happening here” and that he’s more than prepared to defend the film in court. Fox Searchlight, the studio responsible for releasing The Shape of Water also released a statement of support for del Toro, calling the accusations “without merit.”
On the surface the similarities between Zindel’s story and The Shape of Water are there: both involve women trying to free a creature being experimented upon. However, del Toro’s film clearly involves a relationship between the two and an emphasis on disability, fantasy, and 1960s Americana. Zindel’s story is a discussion about animal rights. It’ll be up to the courts to decide who is right.