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Credit: Fox Searchlight

The Shape of Water gets slapped with copyright lawsuit; Guillermo del Toro responds

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Feb 21, 2018, 8:00 PM EST

Following accusations leveled last month by the son of late author Paul Zindel that The Shape of Water plagiarized a 1969 play written by his father, The Wrap reports that a lawsuit was officially filed on Wednesday (Feb. 21) in a California federal court alleging just that.

The suit, filed by David Zindel against director/co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro, Fox Searchlight, and other parties, claims that Del Toro's romantic monster movie infringes on Let Me Hear You Whisper, a 1969 play by Paul Zindel, who died in 2003.

The play, according to the suit, follows 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."

The suit continues that the woman "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."

The suit deems that the similarities between the two works are actionable (although the creature in the play is a dolphin and not an elemental river god), adding that "defendants have plainly incorporated numerous copyright protectible literary elements from the Play in their Picture." It also alleges that "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 legal action also claims that The Shape of Water producer Daniel Kraus, who is also a defendant in the suit, is an "admirer of Zindel's work" and pitched the idea for the film to Del Toro the same year that a new staging of the play was shown on the A&E cable network.

In a statement sent to SYFY WIRE, David Zindel said, "We are very grateful for the spontaneous outpouring on social media that first brought this injustice to our attention. This troubling matter was raised 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."

Del Toro responded to the accusations in remarks to Deadline, saying, "I have never read nor seen the play. I’d never heard of this play before making The Shape of Water, and none of my collaborators ever mentioned the play.”

The Shape of Water is currently a frontrunner in the Academy Awards race and Del Toro suggested that the timing of the lawsuit is similar to past efforts at sabotaging favored nominees just as voting is starting: "I really cannot stomach the timing of this accusation. It’s pretty transparent what is happening here. To me, it’s actually a relief to take something from the arena of opinion into the arena of fact and law.”

Del Toro also defended Daniel Kraus, saying, “He has repeatedly said that he was not influenced by the play; he didn’t know the play and has not seen the play, and that is the reason we are going to court."

The director said that aside from the basic and much-used idea of a creature being liberated from captivity, it is his understanding based on what he's read about the play that his movie is completely different in every other aspect. Del Toro also stated that he's never been shy about acknowledging any influences on his work:

"I have been at this 25 years and have an unimpeachable reputation. I have always made it an element of my career to talk about my influences in every single movie I have made, in the comment track of DVDs, on Twitter, in my museum exhibitions. I have been open about the things I love, and I have had no problem discussing them and how they were transformational in my movies. This 25 year trajectory should come in handy. I have written or co-written about 24 screenplays. I am a writer/director who has generated TV series, books, movies and an enormous amount of screenplays through the years. Without a single complaint.”

Fox Searchlight, the studio backing the Oscar-nominated film, called the suit “baseless” and “wholly without merit" in a statement given to SYFY WIRE, adding, "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."

The Shape of Water is nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and -- yes -- Best Original Screenplay.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with David Zindel's statement.