Playwright's Estate Claims 'The Shape of Water' Derived From Uncredited Play

"We are shocked that a major studio could make a film so obviously derived from my late father’s work," David Zindel wrote in an email.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
'The Shape of Water'

The estate of late playwright Paul Zindel is slamming Fox Searchlight for allegedly borrowing the story behind Guillermo del Toro's Oscar hopeful The Shape of Water from a 1969 play without asking for rights.

David Zindel, the son of the playwright and manager of his father's estate, told The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday that the film was "obviously derived" from the 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper, which follows a recently hired cleaning lady at a lab experimenting on mammals. The protagonist, Helen, takes pity on a dolphin the scientists have scheduled for a brain dissection after having failed to make it talk, and rescues the dolphin, putting it out to sea.

The Shape of Water, similarly, follows a mute cleaning lady at a government lab who establishes a connection with a sea creature from the Amazon that scientists are experimenting on. She ultimately falls in love with the creature and plans to rescue it before the scientists can dissect it.

"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,” Zindel told THR. Zindel's claims were first reported in The Guardian.

Zindel said that he first learned of the similarities from fans of his father's work.  "A lot of people are telling us they are struck by the substantial similarities and we are looking into it," he wrote. "We are very grateful to Paul Zindel’s fans for bringing this to our attention." 

He points to a page on the site Hollywood Nerd that compares the play and del Toro's film. Some of the alleged similarities are that the custodian protagonists both plot to help their respective sea creatures escape by hiding them in a laundry cart; both stories are set in the 1960s during the Cold War; both stories show the protagonist winning the creature's trust by sneaking him food and in both stories the custodian protagonist falls in love with the creature.

Hollywood Nerd, whose domain was registered in 2013, is the website of actress Rachel Style, according to a screenshot from May 2014 available via The Wayback Machine. Style's IMDb profile, linked to in the screenshot, says that she is married to David Zindel.

The Shape of Water's screenplay, nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar on Tuesday, was based on an original idea by both del Toro and author and filmmaker Daniel Kraus, according to Kraus' webpage and interviews that del Toro has given. The story has been released as both a film and an illustrated book in a "bold, two-tiered release," Kraus writes.

Paul Zindel, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, published his one-act play in 1969, and a television adaptation aired on A&E Television's series American Playwrights Theater in 1990, starring Jean Stapleton as its central cleaning woman.

This isn't the first time that viewers have noted similarities between del Toro's film and another work: After viewers pointed out parallels between The Shape of Water and the 2015, 13-minute short The Space Between Us, the Netherlands Film Academy, which produced the short, issued a statement saying that the two films "have their own very different identities" on Monday.

In response to Zindel's claim, Fox Searchlight issued the following statement to THR: "Guillermo del Toro has never read nor seen Mr. Zindel’s play in any form. 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. If the Zindel family has questions about this original work, we welcome a conversation with them."

Jan. 25, 6:21 p.m. Updated with information about the Hollywood Nerd website.