Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated film, The Shape of Water, has been hit with accusations of plagiarism by the estate of an American author and playwright.
David Zindel, the son of Pulitzer prize winner Paul Zindel, recently told The Guardian in a statement that he believes del Toro’s magical tale of a female janitor who falls in love with a captive water creature is clearly inspired by his father’s own 1969 play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, also about a female janitor who falls in love with a captive water creature (in this instance, a dolphin).
“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 statement reads. “A lot of people are telling us they are struck by the substantial similarities. We are very grateful to Paul Zindel’s fans for bringing this to our attention.”
This marks the first time that the Zindel family has commented on the controversy, though murmurs of the similarities have been circulating online for some time.
In The Shape of Water, mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) befriends and falls in love with a creature being held captive at a government facility. She uses food to gain the trust of the creature, and devises a plan to help the creature escape via a laundry cart after overhearing government officials discussing an impending “vivisection” for the creature.
In Let Me Hear You Whisper, a female janitor named Helen (Ruth White) befriends and falls for a dolphin being held captive at a government facility. She is not mute, but she does make reference to muteness when talking about the dolphin’s inability to express itself to the scientists. (“Some human beings are mute, you know. Just because they can’t talk, we don’t kill them.”)
She uses food to gain the trust of the dolphin, and plots to help it escape by sneaking it out of the laboratory in a laundry cart. A “vivisection” is also mentioned by the scientists as they discuss plans to kill the dolphin.
Both works also feature a friend who helps the protagonist sneak the creature out of the facility; in the case of The Shape of Water, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) plays a supporting role, while in Let Me Hear You Whisper, a woman named Danielle assists Helen with her plan.
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There is also a scene in both the film and the play of the women dancing with a mop to love songs for the creatures’ amusement.
A Fox Searchlight spokesperson denied the allegations of plagiarism, noting that del Toro had never even seen Zindel’s play. “Mr. del Toro has had a 25 year career during which he has made 10 feature films and has always been very open about acknowledging his influences,” the production company said in a statement to The Guardian. “If the Zindel family has questions about this original work we welcome a conversation with them.” The Shape of Water leads this year’s Oscar nominations, with 13 total.