'The Shape of Water' Sparks Copyright Lawsuit Amid Oscar Voting

The Shape of Water Still 3 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

With less than a week remaining before Academy Awards voting ends, Guillermo del Toro and Fox Searchlight are being sued for allegedly copying the idea for The Shape of Water.

The film, which tells an inter-species love story set against the backdrop of the Cold War arms race, is nominated for best picture and del Toro is widely considered the frontrunner for best director. 

But, according to the family of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Zindel, the fantasy story is a rip-off of a 1969 play called Let Me Hear You Whisper. David Zindel says his father's work also depicted a lonely cleaning woman who works at a lab, bonds with an aquatic creature and breaks him out after learning authorities planned to kill him. 

"Despite the glaring similarities between the Play and the obviously derivative Picture, Defendants never bothered to seek or obtain a customary license from Plaintiff of motion picture and ancillary rights to the Play, nor did Defendants credit Zindel on the Picture," writes attorney Marc Toberoff in the complaint.

Zindel claims his father's work has not only been performed live, but is taught in schools and has aired on national television twice — and producer Daniel Kraus is a known "admirer" of the playwright's work. He claims Kraus pitched del Toro the idea of "a janitor that kidnaps an amphibian-man from a secret government facility" after learning the director was looking to create his own take on The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Toberoff details similarities between the play and picture over a dozen pages in the complaint and notes that even minor but memorable elements are shared, including a decapitated cat, severed fingers and the use of the term "vivisection." He also includes a list of public comments from Zindel fans who thought the film was similar to his work. (Read the complaint in full below.) 

"My dad was a chemistry teacher before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning author," Zindel said Wednesday in a statement. "He was always so generous with his time to help and inspire students, teachers, librarians, and other writers; so it came as a total shock to us that his original work would be so blatantly and extensively taken. We are very grateful for the spontaneous outpouring on social media that first brought this injustice to our attention. This troubling matter was brought up with Fox five weeks ago but was met with inertia. The glaring similarities between the film and our father’s play are too extensive for us to ignore and so we had to act."

Fox Searchlight also issued a statement Wednesday: “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.”