Plagiarism charges

‘The Shape of Water’ compared to 2015 Dutch short, Netherlands academy shuts down plagiarism murmurs

The Netherlands Film Academy organised a screening of Guillermo Del Toro’s acclaimed movie and a discussion with the director.

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.

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The Space Between Us.

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.

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The Shape of Water.

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.

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Abe Sapien and The Shape of Water.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.