Oscar frontrunner The Shape of Water in plagiarism row; was its real inspiration Hellboy?

Gautam Chintamani

February 11, 2018 16:08:19 IST

A much-loved filmmaker who connects with his audiences at a meta level, a story that transcends genres, and the ultimate glory of being the most nominated film at this year’s Oscars makes The Shape of Water the stuff of cinematic legend. Despite striking a chord with millions of viewers and critics across the world, Guillermo del Toro’s film is marred in plagiarism accusations, and these allegations might linger for a long time thanks to the film emerging as a front-runner for big Oscar wins, especially Best Director.

Guillermo del Toro after winning the Golden Globe for Best Director for The Shape of Water/Image from Twitter.

Guillermo del Toro after winning the Golden Globe for Best Director for The Shape of Water/Image from Twitter.

The fairy-tale romance between a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) at a secret government lab in the 1950's and an aquatic creature, or “asset” (Doug Jones), locked in the facility is being accused of being too similar to Paul Zindel’s 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper where an introvert woman develops feelings for a dolphin that is being experimented upon; as well as a 2015 Dutch student short film called The Space Between Us.

Even though del Toro has officially not commented on the similarities between The Shape of Water and The Space Between Us, whose plot also deals with a woman falling for an aquatic creature, the visual parallels between the two appear to be more than coincidental. Marc S. Nollkaemper’s The Space Between Us is set in a post-nuclear future where the air quality had rendered it impossible to breathe in, and many internet users put up screenshots of the two movies to highlight the similarity. An ever-growing Reddit thread also had users talking about the two films and how del Toro had been working on the film long before The Space Between Us even began.

The murmurs about the similarities between del Toro’s film and the Paul Zindel play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, had been doing the rounds since a few months, and once the film got 13 Oscar nominations, the highest this year, the outcry increased. In an email interview with The Guardian, David Zindel, the son of the Pulitzer winning playwright, said, “We are shocked that a major studio could make a film so obviously derived from my late father’s work without anyone recognizing it and coming to us for the rights.” Fox Searchlight, the studio that has produced The Shape of Water, however, denied that del Toro has ever seen the play and also added that del Toto has always been very open about acknowledging his influences, and if the Zindel family had questions about this original work they welcomed a conversation with them.

A still from The Shape of Water/Image from YouTube.

A still from The Shape of Water/Image from YouTube.

In the pantheon of contemporary filmmakers, del Toro is one of a kind. He is the kind of the filmmaker whose inspirations seem to origin from varied sources. In fact, The Shape of Water owes a great deal to the 1950's monster film Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more than that his film-making process is also extremely collaborative in nature. In the case of The Shape of Water, del Toro collaborated with writer Daniel Kraus, who had pitched a kernel of an idea to the filmmaker while playing tennis in 2011, and since then the two went back and forth on the basic premise till it transformed into a film. The two also co-authored a novel that adapts the movie and pretty much stands on its own.

So, where does the whole issue stand? Often considered to be the only one left out of the ‘three amigos’ group of longtime friend, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, to not win the Best Director Oscar, del Toro’s film is also a great achievement in terms of budget. The director has said that making the film was a terrible experience as it was “very difficult, very difficult” to make a $19.5 million film look like a $60 or $70 million film. Moreover, del Toro’s Best Director win at the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) awards has given an indication how things could turn out on Oscar night as traditionally the DGA winner has gone on to win the Academy Award. This being the first time where a front-runner for Oscar glory is accused of being plagiarized does put The Shape of Water in a not-so-comfortable place, but there could be some more dots that need to be connected to get a clearer picture

The similarities between The Shape of Water and both Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper and The Space Between Us notwithstanding, or the revival of interest in the 1982 Rachel Ingalls novella Mrs. Caliban that was perhaps the ‘first’ one to explore a romance between a lonely woman and an amphibious creature romance, del Toro’s own cinematic universe is peppered with such characters. The concept of lonely fish man is seen in Hellboy I (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) that has an aquatic creature called Abe Sapien (also played by Doug Jones) inside a super-secret tank in a large laboratory. It might not be totally incorrect to assume that The Shape of Water owes its origin to Abe Sapien from Hellboy. Perhaps this could be the reason why del Toro is not worried by the plagiarism charges. After all, according to him the general concept of an aquatic creature in a tank in a large laboratory is “not exactly in the province of exclusivity.”

Updated Date: Feb 11, 2018 21:19 PM