The Controversy Swirling Around ‘The Shape of Water’

Jason McDonald

Normally I don’t get all invested in the Oscar season, but this year is a particularly exciting one for horror fans. Two big releases from this past year are up for a substantial amount of nominations.  One is “Get Out” which had a huge impact this year as it delved into race at a time when the topic has been back at the forefront of our country’s mind.  Then there’s “The Shape of Water” which represents the culmination of Guillermo Del Toro’s lifelong love with monsters.  And while there are great discussions to be had about both films, there’s one that could possibly affect the results of tonight’s award show.

So if you’re going to an Oscar party tonight or sitting around the couch with your family/friends/cats and someone brings up the current controversy surrounding “The Shape of Water” you might find yourself at a loss to what’s going on if you haven’t paid attention.  Never fear, I’m here to give you a quick rundown of what’s been going on.

At the heart of this controversy is the theme of plagiarism.  Now, let me preface this by saying that I don’t believe director Guillermo Del Toro plagiarized any part of his Oscar nominated film.  It is, of course, full of themes and tributes related to other films particularly “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” However, starting this year there have been some allegations that Del Toro may have cribbed his film from other sources.

Before we get too far, it’s important to note that the original concept of “The Shape of Water” originated with author Daniel Kraus who shared with Guillermo Del Toro back in 2011 his idea for a sea creature trapped in a lab and the woman that loved it.  According to Gizmodo Kraus originally came up with the idea when he was 15 and had been nurturing it since then until his conversation with Del Toro in 2011 inspired him to pursue it further.

This is an important detail to note as the first time time this allegation of plagiarism popped up was when someone realized that a short film released in 2015 called “The Space Between Us” had some striking similarities with Del Toro’s film.  In “The Space Between Us” a woman discovers a fish creature in a tank, falls in love with it, and attempts to set it free.  Yeah that sounds pretty damn similar.  And the art style of the film, which you can check out below, has some interesting parallels.

However, thanks to the timeline we talked about before and the fact that Guillermo Del Toro reached out to the team behind the short film and talked to them about their similar themes and love of films, any allegations were quickly dismissed and the whole ordeal was put behind everyone.  It seemed like an amicable end to a sticky situation.

Fast forward to last month when a more serious allegation would be leveled at Del Toro and his film.

Have you heard of a play/book called “Let Me Hear You Whisper”? If not, I wouldn’t be surprised.  It originally came out in 1969.  The play focused on a cleaning lady working in an aquatic research lab who strikes up a friendship with a dolphin who opens up to her and reveals that he is an intelligent thinking and feeling creature.  Another instance in which the basic premise strikes some interesting similartiies

And, while the last allegation was resolved peacefully, this instance has taken a more serious turn as a lawsuit has been filed with the US District Court by a lawyer known for pursuing lawsuits on behalf of writers and their estates.  The lawsuit popped up last month after all of the Oscar nominations were revealed.  Rather suspicious and calculated timing.  A fact that Guillermo Del Toro seemed to be aware of when he spoke with Deadline last week about the issue.

“I really cannot stomach the timing of this accusation,” he said. “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.”

In this instance it looks like Del Toro will be heading to court with Fox Searchlight backing him up to settle these allegations once and for all.  It remains to be seen how this will all resolve, but I’ll be curious to see if these allegations have any impact on Del Toro’s Oscar chances.

At the end of the day it is interesting that Del Toro’s film keeps coming up in this conversation, but it’s not like the idea is so unique that it hasn’t popped up before.  At the heart of the story is a person finding love with a non-human creature.  The settings are definitely an interesting coincidence, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to have multiple stories set in a lab where a distraught creature forms a bond with a kindly person.  At the end of the day I think these instances are so circumstantial that it’ll come down to each individual person to determine if Del Toro plagiarized anything.  Personally, I find it hard to believe that a man who created so many unique worlds, stories, and creatures would suddenly start taking ideas from others.

Shape of Water


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