Guillermo del Toro Sued, Accused of Lifting ‘The Shape of Water’ From Paul Zindel Play

The estate of the Pulitzer winning writer says del Toro borrowed too much from the 1969 play “Let Me Hear You Whisper”

Last Updated: February 21, 2018 @ 4:28 PM

Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a ripoff of a drama by Pulitzer-winning playwright Paul Zindel, according to a new lawsuit filed by the deceased playwright’s son.

The suit, filed in federal court in California on Wednesday against del Toro, Fox Searchlight and others, alleges that “The Shape of Water” infringes on Zindel’s 1969 play “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”

According to the suit, the play “tells the story of a lonely janitorial cleaning woman who works the graveyard shift at a scientific laboratory facility that performs animal experiments for military use. There she becomes fascinated by a fantastic intelligent aquatic creature, held captive in a glass tank. To the sounds of romantic vintage music playing on a record player, she forms a deep, loving bond with the creature, discovering that it can communicate — but chooses to do so only with her. When she learns that the authorities plan to kill the creature, in the name of scientific progress, she hatches a plan to liberate the creature in a rolling laundry cart and release it at a dock that feeds into the ocean, where it will finally be free.”

Per the play’s online synopsis, the cleaning lady, Helen, is “particularly drawn to a dolphin.”

The suit says that “The Shape of Water” lifts from the concept to an actionable degree. (Zindel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his drama “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-on-the Moon Marigolds.)

“Defendants have plainly incorporated numerous copyright protectible literary elements from the Play in their Picture. The Picture was publicly released in December 2017 to much fanfare, garnering nominations from dozens of associations, including thirteen nominations for ‘Best Original Screenplay.’ Although the Picture has struck a chord with audiences worldwide, filmgoers familiar with Zindel’s Play have roundly recognized the Picture as copying the Play, and have publicly criticized its creators for not crediting Zindel’s work,” the suit reads.

According to the suit, “The Shape of Water” producer Daniel Kraus, who reportedly pitched the “Shape of Water” idea to del Toro, “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.”

“My dad was a chemistry teacher before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. 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,” David Zindel told TheWrap in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

TheWrap has reached out to a del Toro spokeswoman for comment on the suit, which seeks unspecified damages.

In a statement, Fox Searchlight called the suit “baseless” and “wholly without merit.”

“These claims from Mr. Zindel’s estate are baseless, wholly without merit and we will be filing a motion to dismiss,” Fox Searchlight said. “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.”

Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.

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