It was a plagiarism row that wasn’t.
Over the weekend, a Reddit post got the internet wondering if Guillermo Del Toro’s awards-season favourite, The Shape of Water, was a little too similar to a 2015 Dutch short film. Both movies involve a woman at a research facility falling in love with an amphibious creature. The matter was quickly resolved in two days, with the producers of the Dutch movie saying they found no conceivable links between the two films.
On January 19, Reddit user dannie_dorko shared the Dutch film, The Space Between Us, on the subreddit r/movies. The user pointed out the similarities between the short film and The Shape of Water.
“Both main characters are cleaning ladies who work in a research facility. They both fall for a fish man. Even the production design and some of the story beats are alike,” the user wrote.
The 13-minute short film, directed by Marc S Nollkaemper, is set in a world ravaged by nuclear war, where most of the land has been engulfed by water and humans are finding a way to develop special gills to breathe. An amphibian creature is brought to a research facility for humans to study. When a janitor at the facility discovers the creature and warms up to it, she decides to free it from its water chamber.
Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is set in the United States in the backdrop of the Cold War with Soviet Russia and has a similar premise: an amphibian creature is brought into a secret research facility where scientists and military personnel have been deployed to find new means to counter the looming Soviet threat. An empathetic janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) develops romantic feelings for the creature and seeks to help it escape the facility.
The movie has so far won Del Toro the 2018 Golden Globes for Best Director and the top prize at the Producer’s Guild Award. It is tipped to lead the Oscars race with a record number of nominations.
The post sparked a debate on Reddit, with some users pointing out similarities between the films and others sharing old articles that established that Del Toro’s movie had been conceived years before the 2015 short film.
Taking note of the brouhaha, the Netherlands Film Academy, which had produced the Dutch film, reportedly organised a special screening of the film for its students, followed by a discussion with Del Toro. It concluded that the two films were distinct, made at different times and “not in any conceivable way interlinked or related”.
“After recently screening The Shape of Water and following conversations that took place in a very constructive and friendly atmosphere, The Netherlands Film Academy believes that both The Shape of Water and our short, The Space Between Us, have their own very different identities. They have separate timelines of development and are not in any conceivable way interlinked or related. The students and The Space Between Us team were very excited and grateful to have the opportunity to actively discuss the creative inspirations of both films in a personal conversation with Mr. Del Toro. We cordially discussed our films and our common roots in mythology and the fantastic (and some themes which Mr. Del Toro has previously dwelled on Hellboy I and II). We have learned a lot from the contact with an extremely gifted and creative filmmaker and wish The Shape of Water continued success.”— The Netherlands Film Academy.
Murmurs around the purported similarity between the two films had also emerged in July-August last year. Del Toro addressed these in an interview to Hollywood Elsewhere , when he said that he had been making films about trapped aquatic creatures in laboratories for a while now.
“What is funny is that I have two movies, Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), with an aquatic creature inside a super-secret tank in a large laboratory,” said Del Toro. “So that [general concept] is not exactly in the province of exclusivity.”
In the Hellboy films, Abe Sapien (also played by Doug Jones, who plays the creature in The Shape of Water) is an aquatic creature who falls in love with an Elfin princess.
Del Toro has in fact credited two sources of inspiration for The Shape of Water: The 1954 monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon and a conversation with author Daniel Kraus in 2011, who is working on a novelised adapatation of the movie.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in September last year, Del Toro said that idea for The Shape of Water came to him when he was six years old as he was watching Creature from the Black Lagoon. “When I saw the creature swimming under Julie Adams [in Creature From the Black Lagoon], I thought three things: I thought, ‘Hubba-hubba.’ I thought, ‘This is the most poetic thing I’ll ever see.’ I was overwhelmed by the beauty. And the third thing I thought is, ‘I hope they end up together,’” Del Toro said.