Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water may have plagiarized a 1960s play by the late Paul Zindel. An adult fairy tale of a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with a sea creature, The Shape of Water is nominated for 13 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film has already claimed numerous awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Guillermo Del Toro conceived the original story for Shape of Water and penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay along with Vanessa Taylor. Now, in a twist worthy of one of the director’s films, accusations are mounting that Del Toro’s Shape of Water story was not so original after all. Fans of the late playwright Paul Zindel have come forward on social media noting major similarities between The Shape of Water and Zindel’s own play Let Me Hear You Whisper. Family members of the late Zindel have also raised their voices in protest against what they view as an act of plagiarism. But was Del Toro really guilty of stealing the idea for his acclaimed film? Or is the whole thing just a bizarre misunderstanding?
What Is Let Me Hear You Whisper?
Let Me Hear You Whisper is a play written in 1969 by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Zindel, who also wrote the well-known The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The story, set in the 1960s, concerns a lonely-hearted female janitor named Helen who gets a new job at a research facility. Strange experiments go on at the facility involving brain analysis of higher mammals. Naturally, scientists are using their research to develop new weapons. It is the Cold War, after all.
One day at work, Helen realizes that the facility’s imprisoned research dolphin, who lives his whole life in a tank, is communicating with her. The painfully shy Helen forms a connection with the dolphin, who won’t talk to anyone else but her. Unfortunately, the scientists have become frustrated with the dolphin’s refusal to cooperate so they decide to kill it and dissect its brain. Helen, now in love with her aquatic friend, decides to rescue the creature and hatches a plot to smuggle it out of the facility. Helen’s plan fails and she of course incurs the wrath of her bosses. But her bosses soon find out the dolphin talks to her, and rather than fire her, they try to persuade her to help them. Kindly Helen naturally refuses to participate in their cruel experiments.
In 1969, Let Me Hear You Whisper received a one-hour TV movie adaptation on Britain’s NET Playhouse series with a script by Zindel himself. In 1990, a version of the play was presented as part of A&E network’s series The American Playwrights Theater: The One Acts. That version starred Jean Stapleton and Rue McClanahan.
Just How Similar Is The Shape Of Water?
Like Let Me Hear You Whisper, The Shape of Water takes place during the Cold War. Both stories involve a shy cleaning lady at a mysterious research facility becoming drawn to an imprisoned sea creature. In both stories, the bond with the creature helps the woman to come out of her shell. Both stories have the woman winning the creature’s trust by bringing it food and entertaining the creature by dancing with her mop.
In Zindel’s play, as in The Shape of Water, the scientists at the facility treat their research subjects and their human employees with the same level of contempt. In both stories, the lab is developing new technology for military purposes. And in both stories, the creature faces death and dissection and the cleaning lady wants to rescue it by smuggling it out of the facility in a laundry cart and setting it free in the ocean.
Unlike Let Me Hear You Whisper, The Shape of Water features a female protagonist who literally doesn’t have a voice (in Zindel’s play, she can speak but no one listens to her because of her low status, rendering her figuratively mute). Instead of a dolphin, the creature in Shape of Water is a humanoid Amazonian river god. In Zindel’s play, Helen’s boss acts like sort of an officious jerk while in The Shape of Water Elisa’s boss, played by Michael Shannon, suffers from megalomania and all sorts of other outright pathological issues.
While Zindel’s play has Helen fail in rescuing the creature, The Shape of Water has Elisa succeed in carrying out her daring plan. The Shape of Water then departs entirely from its similarities to Zindel’s play. Nowhere in Let Me Hear You Whisper do Helen and the dolphin end up having magical interspecies sex in a flooded bathroom. There is also no romantic final scene where the full magical powers of the creature are revealed, and the fairy tale story reaches its stirring and unlikely climax.
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