LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "The Shape of Water," a contender for this year's best picture Oscar, was hit with a plagiarism lawsuit on Wednesday, alleging that its fantastical plot about a romance between a cleaning woman and a mysterious river creature was lifted directly from an American stage play.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, alleged that director Guillermo del Toro, producer Daniel Kraus and movie studio Fox Searchlight <FOXA.0> "brazenly copies the story, elements, characters and themes" from a 1969 play by the late Paul Zindel.
"The Shape of Water" has a leading 13 Oscar nominations at the March 4 Academy Awards ceremony, including nods for best picture and best director. The lawsuit was filed the day after ballots went out to some 8,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who vote on the Oscar winners.
The lawsuit, filed by Zindel's son David, listed more than 60 resemblances between the play "Let Me Hear You Whisper," and "The Shape of Water."
They include the play and the movie's basic story of the lonely janitor who works at a scientific laboratory during the Cold War, forms a loving bond with a captive aquatic creature and hatches a plan to liberate it.
In the Zindel play, the creature is a dolphin. In the movie, it is a half-man, half-river creature.
The lawsuit said that despite "the glaring similarities between the play and the obviously derivative picture, defendants never bothered to seek or obtain a customary license" for the rights to Zindel's play, nor credit him.
Fox Searchlight denied the claims as "baseless (and) wholly without merit."
The studio said in a statement that the lawsuit seemed timed "to coincide with the Academy Award voting cycle in order to pressure our studio to quickly settle. Instead, we will vigorously defend ourselves and, by extension, this groundbreaking and original film."
The lawsuit cited interviews given by Kraus and del Toro in which they said Kraus, an American novelist, came up with the storyline about a janitor who kidnaps an amphibian.
It alleged that Kraus was aware of Zindel and his play, which was produced for television in 1969 and again in 1990.
New York-based Zindel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1964 play "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," died in 2003.
"The Shape of Water" has already won a best picture Golden Globe and numerous acting and craft awards from film critics' groups in the United States and elsewhere.
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant, editing by G Crosse)