Did the film The Shape of Water plagiarize the play Let Me Hear You Whisper by Paul Zindel? According to many people on social media, the extreme similarity between the two works is glaringly obvious with comments like, “The Shape of Plagiarism?” and “I’m surprised Zindel’s family are not suing.” It may not come as a surprise to them that one of the producers of The Shape of Water has said on record, “I stole (grave robbed?) from everything I could.”
Let’s examine the details of each work and hear what others have to say. Scroll to the bottom for links to watch and read Let Me Hear You Whisper.
The two plots:
Let Me Hear You Whisper
Set in the 1960s, the plot follows a lonely, introverted female custodian at a research facility who falls in love with a captured aquatic creature, a dolphin, who talks only to her. When the creature refuses to cooperate with the scientists’ plan to be used as a military weapon, they decide they will kill it and dissect it. The custodian attempts to help the creature escape to the sea by means of a laundry cart.
The Shape of Water
Set in the 1960s, the plot follows a lonely, introverted female custodian at a research facility who falls in love with a captured aquatic creature who talks only to her. When the creature refuses to cooperate with the scientists’ plan to be used as a military weapon, they decide they will kill it and dissect it. The custodian attempts to help the creature escape to the sea by means of a laundry cart.
A short introduction to each work:
Let Me Hear You Whisper is a play written in 1969 by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright and young adult author Paul Zindel (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon-Marigolds, The Pigman). The play earned wide recognition in its National Educational Television (NET) Network production filmed in 1969. Zindel wrote the screenplay and it starred Ruth White. The play was also filmed for A&E in 1990 starring Jean Stapleton and Rue McClanahan.
The Shape of Water is a 2017 film directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The film won two Golden Globes, including Best Director for del Toro and has been nominated for many other awards including Best Original Screenplay. The film stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer.
In both Let Me Hear You Whisper and The Shape of Water, the protagonist is a quiet, unmarried, and lonely cleaning woman who works the graveyard shift at a laboratory conducting secret experiments on an aquatic creature for military research during the 1960’s. (Both protagonists are pictured above in green wool overcoats.)
A brief summary of the major similarities of the two works:
Let Me Hear You Whisper AND The Shape of Water:
- The main character is a quiet, introverted female custodian who works the graveyard shift in a laboratory.
- Set in the 1960s during the Cold War, at a laboratory where experiments for military use are taking place
- The custodian discovers a tank with an aquatic creature who is being experimented on
- The custodian and the aquatic creature fall in love, a transformative love which enables both of them to be heard
- She wins his trust by sneaking food into the lab and feeding him.
- She dances to music on a record with her mop while the creature looks on and their bond grows deeper
- She is treated in a dehumanizing way by her superiors at the laboratory.
- She discovers that the scientists who run the lab want to use the creature as a military weapon if they can get him to cooperate but if not, he is to be vivisected for research purposes.
- She decides to rescue the creature and release him to the sea by sneaking him out of the facility in a laundry cart.
What people are saying on social media about the similarities:
The astonishing similarities between Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper have not gone unnoticed. At least one reviewer of The Shape of Water and numerous people across different platforms on social media have noticed as well.
In Mark Leeper’s review of the Shape of Water, he mentions the extreme similarity between The Shape of Water and Let Me Hear You Whisper, saying, “I would say The Shape of Water has one major problem…In 1969 and again in 1990, PBS adapted to television Paul Zindel’s play ‘Let me Hear You Whisper.’ In this story, a downtrodden cleaning woman in a secret government laboratory finds a dolphin in a tank and befriends it. It has been trained to sing the words to ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’ From that song, Zindel takes the title of the play. The cleaning woman discovers to her horror the dolphin is really being trained to fight wars undersea and be blown up with the munitions he carries. She determines to steal the dolphin in a laundry cart and set it free. That is much like del Toro‘s story but Zindel‘s name does not appear in the credits of the new film… I know of no statement from the filmmakers that mentions this film and Zindel‘s play in the same breath. I did not see Zindel‘s name anywhere in the credits. I will be interested to see how this problem plays out…I am sorry to see del Toro resorting to uncredited near-remakes of other people‘s stories.”
In the comments section of Sheila O’Malley’s review of The Shape of Water on RogerEbert.com, user Leo comments, “Was the film influenced by Paul Zindel’s short play Let Me Hear You Whisper? (it used to be frequently on PBS)?
Several users agree and user THEgillian replies saying:..“…there is NO WAY someone involved in the story was unfamiliar with the play. There are way too many similarities…I don’t mind if people take an idea and improve on it, but I really mind them not crediting the source. I’m surprised none of Zindel’s relatives are suing.”
Several users on Twitter also commented on the striking similarity The Shape of Water has to Let Me Hear You Whisper. Twitter user Alfred coined the term, “The Shape of Plagiarism?” in his frank description of the similarities between The Shape of Water and Let Me Hear You Whisper, even attempting to alert several news outlets of his concerns by tweeting at them. While Twitter user Shanna comments, “Quick Google search indicates that I am not the only one to see the similarity between this film and the @paulzindel play.”
Social media commentary on the similarity of the two can be found on youtube as well, with user Peter commenting on the CBC News video review of The Shape of Water, “Do the film’s credits acknowledge the television play from the 1960’s ‘Let Me Hear You Whisper,’ which was broadcast on Public Television in at least two versions?…”
Just seeing The Shape of Water trailer was enough for some Twitter and Facebook users to comment on the similarity to Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper. Twitter user Edward commented, “Is it just me or does the del Toro The Shape of Water trailer seem way too similar to the play Let Me Hear You Whisper by Paul Zindel? Twitter user Jonathan commented, “the new del toro movie reminds me of Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper, a one act play about a janitor and an experimental dolphin.”
Facebook Community Trust Me I’m A Nerd weighed in on the similarities as well and commented, “So it’s a movie version of Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper?”
And Doug, a user on the forums for the roleplaying website RPG.net comments, “It actually kinda feels like the weirdest remake of Let Me Hear You Whisper possible.”
Twitter user Danielle recently commented, “Throughout The Shape of Water I was just imagining Guillermo del Toro watching this old Jean Stapleton play and being like ‘what if the dolphin were…sexy?” She goes on to ask, “Am I the only one who just thought of Let Me Hear You Whisper during The Shape of Water? Surely it wasn’t just me!
On January 16, Facebook user Zack posted, “The Shape of Water‘s plot is a LOT like this play…called Let Me Hear You Whisper, about a cleaning woman who develops a rapport with a dolphin in a lab being trained to speak…Surprised author Paul Zindel has not sued…”
A few days before that, Facebook user Barbara noted the similarity as well, “I saw The Shape of Water. It reminded me very much of the wonderful play by Paul Zindel called Let Me Hear You Whisper, about a cleaning lady in a government lab where they are trying to train a captive dolphin. There was also a TV version, but it hasn’t been shown for years.”
And at the end of December 2017, Facebook user Joseph had posted a series of screenshots from the 1969 TV production version of Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper and the dialogue from the film, along with the question: “which fish, first fish?” And the statement, “For the record.”
Then in January 2018, right after The Shape of Water‘s 13 Academy Award nominations were announced, Joseph added, “How can Shape of Water be nominated for Best Original Screenplay when its premise, plot and central character are ripped off from Paul Zindel’s 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper?”
Examining the details:
Pinpointing the possible origin:
How did this happen? How did The Shape of Water‘s plot end up with so many similarities to Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper as to rule out the possibility of a coincidence? How in the world does an established director such as Guillermo del Toro get himself into such a situation where he is copying someone else’s work so extensively that most who are familiar with Zindel’s play are describing it as plagiarism?
In the January 2018 edition of Written By, the Writers Guild magazine interview with Guillermo del Toro, he describes a meeting with novelist Daniel Kraus, (credited on The Shape of Water as an associate producer). Del Toro explains he wanted to do a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake but he couldn’t find a way to do it in a romantic way. “Finally, over a breakfast with novelist Daniel Kraus in 2011, the code was broken. The novelist shared with del Toro a story idea “about a janitor that kidnaps an amphibian-man from a secret government facility.” I said, ‘That’s the way in!’ ” The “story idea” that Daniel Kraus shared with Guillermo del Toro at that breakfast meeting happens to be the exact plot of Paul Zindel’s 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper.
As so many people have already pointed out on social media, it is very hard to believe that del Toro and Kraus were not familiar with Let Me Hear You Whisper as they made The Shape of Water.
Digging a little deeper, one finds proof that Daniel Kraus is not only familiar with Paul Zindel’s work, but admires it, as evidenced in an article he wrote for Booklist in 2017 entitled “50 Best YA Books of All Time,” in which he includes Paul Zindel’s YA classic novel The Pigman near the very top of the list, describing it as, “…one of the earliest YA books to show teen life in all its darkness and complexity.”
Daniel Kraus’ own website describes The Shape of Water, both the film and the upcoming novel as, “Based on an original idea by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus.”
Interestingly, in an AMA Daniel Kraus did two years ago for the release of his novel, when asked about research resources for his writing process he said, “…I stole (grave robbed?) from everything I could.”
Although Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel is no longer here (he died in 2003) to personally comment on the situation involving his play Let Me Hear You Whisper, his characters and their words live on through his works.
At the end of Let Me Hear You Whisper, the introverted night custodian Helen finally finds her voice and says to the scientists, “You gotta talk back against what’s wrong or you can’t ever stop it. At least you’ve gotta try.”
You can read Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper here, or from your local bookstore or library.
You can watch the 1969 version of Let Me Hear You Whisper here. The Shape of Water is playing in theaters now. What do you think?