AN EMPIRE OF ONE

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The Shape of Water vs. “Let Me Hear You Whisper”

  1. When I first heard the Estate of Paul Zindel was claiming the makers of The Shape of Water plagiarized Zindel’s one act play, “Let Me Hear You Whisper,” I was annoyed. I was annoyed because I’ve already picked Shape to win the Best Picture Oscar in a pool. But I was also annoyed because I want it to win because it’s fucking great. But then I watched the PBS version of the play on Youtube and my annoyance changed to delight. Why? The Estate has set up a foil for Del Toro’s masterpiece, that is, something to compare it to, that highlights what makes it great. The opposite, or is it inverse, is also true: comparing Shape with Whisper shows what a minor work Zindel’s play is.
  2. Watch the 1969 PBS version of the Zindel play here.
  3. Ironically, the case filing accusing Shape of plagiarizing Whisper is itself plagiarized. Compare the section “Examining the details” here, with section 43 of the complaint, here.
  4. Here is an example of the lawyer taking wordings from the “examining the details section” of the Hollywood Nerd article and using substitution and rearranging to try to make it “original.” 
  5. This is the lawyer’s wording:
  6. Whisper, contrary to what the Estate claims, is not an original work. It’s almost certainly based on human-animal communication experiments in the 1960s with dolphins by John C. Lilly.
  7. The Estate’s filing says Whisper was written in or around 1969. Well, a 1967 French novel (Un animal doué de raison), translated into English in 1969 as The Day of the Dolphin, was also based on these events. Wikipedia: “The plot concerns dolphins that are trained to communicate with humans, and their use in warfare.” This is the plot of “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”
  8. There’s enough similarity between Whisper (1969) and Dolphin (1969) to hypothesize an influence. You might even say Zindel “derived” his work from the novel. Even if that is not the case, he could have derived it from the real events surrounding John C. Lilly. The point is that Whisper, one way or the other, is derived and not entirely original.
  9. Of course, the Estate’s filing cannot prove writers of The Shape of Water were aware Zindel’s work. The biggest similarity is story POV, that is, both stories are told from the POV of a cleaning lady. However, I do not think you can copyright the idea of telling a story from a  cleaning lady’s POV. It that were the case, Zindel’s story would violate the copyright of the TV show Hazel.
  10. The Estate’s filing is worded to make the two works sound as similar as possible. However, let’s suppose we ask people who are not lawyers to describe the two stories. I doubt their descriptions would end up as similar as the Estate’s. I’ve already offered one alternate description (“The plot concerns dolphins that are trained to communicate with humans, and their use in warfare”) which would set it up for its own plagiarism case because it’s so similar to The Day of the Dolphin.
  11. The Estate does not want to mention Creature from the Black Lagoon or its sequels. Those are the true inspirations for Shape. If anyone had cause to sue, it would be the creators of those films. However, Shape is obviously different enough that such a case would not prevail in court. The same is true for Whisper.
  12. Superficially, Shape and Whisper start of similarly, especially if you play tricks with the words describing their plots as does the lawyer in the filing. But ultimately, they are very different. Whisper is a critique of those who go along to get along. The main conflict in the play is between the cleaning lady and her immediate supervisor. The supervisor describes the cleaning lady several times as “nice.” This is less a description than a proscription. By nice she means someone who does what they are told and does not cause trouble. In other words, someone who does not put sand in the wheels of progress, which is what the experiments are said to be. The cleaning lady cannot remain silent. The title of the play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, alludes to the act of speaking up and the cleaning lady even yells at the dolphin, after she learns it’s been able to talk all along, for not speaking up. She tells off the scientists and threatens to inform the ASPCA. Experiments on dolphins are not the only ones conducted as this lab. Other animals are involved, too. The cleaning lady’s supervisor speaks of a cat she loved that was killed. She didn’t like it, but in order to keep her job she learned that she must not become attached to the animals, to care. She learned to go along to get along. The new cleaning lady, in contrast, does not. She may need the job, but quits because she thinks the work is immoral, even if she is not the one doing the experiments. In other words, the play is about a the birth of a whistleblower. Daniel Ellsberg would approve, and it’s probably useful to remember this play was written at the height of the Vietnam War.
  13. The Estate’s filing reads like a junior high student’s compare and contrast English assignment that forgot the contrast part. For example, the cleaning lady in Whisper may be less talkative than her co-workers, but she isn’t hesitant to talk or ask questions. Shape’s cleaning lady is mute, so she cannot literally talk, but she can still communicate with sign language but she doesn’t, at least at first. Whipser’s cleaning lady is not the brightest bulb on the tree. When the dolphin says, “Ham-per,” she has no idea what it’s saying and has to ask her co-worker: “What is a ham-per.” Her co-worker immediately knows. Shape’s cleaning lady only appears to be stupid. In fact, every one of the workers in the film are undervalued by their superiors. They are all prevented from fulfilling their true potential. Except Elisa, the cleaning lady. Having lived her entire life as a fish out of water, she fulfills her true potential and becomes a fish in water. I hope she meets up with Mr. Limpet.

 

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Written by pronountrouble2

February 24, 2018 at 1:25 pm