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‘Shape of Water’ Ripped Off 1969 Play, Lawsuit Alleges

The son of playwright Paul Zindel filed a lawsuit on Wednesday alleging that “The Shape of Water” was based on Zindel’s 1969 play, “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”

David Zindel contends that the similarities between the two works are so striking that “The Shape of Water” should properly be seen as an adaptation of his father’s play. The suit accuses Fox Searchlight, director Guillermo del Toro, and producer Daniel Kraus of violating the copyright that now belongs to the playwright’s children.

The play features an introverted female janitor who forms a bond with a dolphin while working in a military laboratory during the height of the Cold War. According to the suit, the janitor learns that the dolphin is to be dissected, and so hatches a plot to kidnap it in a laundry cart and release it into a river. In “The Shape of Water,” a mute janitor in a military lab forms a bond with an Amazonian river monster, and hatches a plot to kidnap it to spare it from death.

“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,” the suit alleges.

In a statement, Fox Searchlight denied that the film was based on “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”

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

In interviews, del Toro and Kraus have said that del Toro was interested in making a film in the tradition of “The Creature From the Black Lagoon,” but could not find a way into the story. In a breakfast meeting in 2011, Kraus suggested a story about a janitor who kidnaps an amphibian from a government research facility.

In the lawsuit, David Zindel argues that Kraus must have seen an A&E adaptation of his father’s play, which aired in 1990. The lawsuit notes that Kraus, a novelist, is familiar with Paul Zindel’s other work, having put Zindel’s novel “The Pigman” on a list of the 50 best Y.A. novels of all time.

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