‘Shape of Water’ Plagiarism Lawsuit Dismissed: Guillermo del Toro Is the ‘True Creator’

Del Toro's fantasy romance picked up Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and more.
THE SHAPE OF WATER, from left: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, 2017. ph: Kerry Hayes/ TM & © Fox Searchlight Pictures. All Rights reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection
"The Shape of Water"
Fox Searchlight / Everett Collection

A copyright lawsuit claiming Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar winner “The Shape of Water” stole from the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Zindel has been dismissed (via The Hollywood Reporter). Both “Shape of Water” and Zindel’s play “Let Me Hear You Whisper” involve plots centered on a creature imprisoned in a science research facility. The lawsuit was originally filed by Zindel’s family in February 2018 just ahead of the Oscar voting deadline. “The Shape of Water” contended for 13 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture and Best Director, among other prizes.

A spokesperson for Searchlight Pictures said in a statement (via THR): “David Zindel, the son of Paul Zindel, author of ‘Let Me Hear You Whisper,’ acknowledges, based on confidential information obtained during the litigation process, that his claims of plagiarism are unfounded. He acknowledges Guillermo del Toro as the true creator of ‘The Shape of Water.’ Any similarity between the two works is coincidental.”

The lawsuit was originally rejected by U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, who ruled “the basic premise of an employee at a scientific facility deciding to free a creature that is subjected to scientific experiments” is “too general to be protected.” The copyright claim was revived in June 2020 when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that “additional evidence, including expert testimony, would aid in the objective literary analysis needed to determine” the similarities between “The Shape of Water” and “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the prosecution and defense teams were scheduled “to present expert reports and witness designations” this week ahead of a July trial date. Now the case has been dropped entirely.

The Zindel family lawsuit was hardly the only plagiarism claim made against “The Shape of Water.” French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet came forward in February 2018 to accuse del Toro of copying the dance scene from his movie “Delicatessen.” The scene in del Toro’s movie features the characters played by Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins performing a charming two-step dance while sitting on a sofa watching an old Hollywood movie.

“I told [del Toro]: ‘You have a lot of imagination, a lot of talent. Why go and [steal] the ideas of others?’” Jeunet told the French publication Ouest-France. “[Del Toro] said, ‘We owe Terry Gilliam everything.’ According to [del Toro], he does not steal from others, it is Terry Gilliam who has influenced us all. When he [directs] the scene of the couple sitting on the edge of the bed dancing with their feet, with the musical in the background on TV, it is so copied and pasted [from] ‘Delicatessen’ that there is a moment when I say to myself that he lacks self-respect.”

Earlier in the 2018 Oscar season, “The Shape of Water” was accused of ripping off Marc S. Nollkaemper’s 13-minute short “The Space Between Us.” Both titles depicted a woman working at a research facility who falls in love with a fish creature. The Netherlands Film Academy, which produced the short, rejected such claims, saying the two films “have their own very different identities” and “are not in any conceivable way interlinked or related.”

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