View from Vitalia: Of ‘Terra’, Toro, Del Toro and the power of coincidence

Similarities between some recent and not-so-recent works of science (and other) fiction can be caused by a number of factors, but can also be purely coincidental.

On an extremely cold and snowy ‘Beast from the East’ evening in the Hertfordshire town where I reside, my wife and I decided to see the new Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Shape of Water’ in our local cinema.

It was warm and cosy inside the movie theatre, the seats were so soft and deep that they negatively affected the sitter’s self-esteem and I was about to take my habitual couple of hours’ cinema snooze, when my fading attention was drawn to something happening on the screen, where an artificially big-eyed amphibian creature was cuddling up to the mute heroine (or was she cuddling up to him?) covering her in green slime. I couldn’t help but have a strong feeling that I had seen it all before, but initially could not recall where and when.

I suddenly had a flashback (and woke up with a jerk). I am eight or nine years old, possibly with my mother or more likely on my own, using my lunch money and playing truant from school. I am sitting in a not-so-comfortable plywood seat inside a small ‘Kharkov’ cinema in the eponymous Soviet city of my childhood and youth. On the screen, a green amphibian creature - played by a handsome Soviet film star Vladimir Korenev - cuddling up to a beautiful and not at all mute woman, played by the naturally big-eyed Anastasiya Vertinskaya, daughter of the famous Russian bard Alexander Vertinsky, who later went on to play Margarita in Yuri Kara’s censored ‘Master and Margarita’ epic (I mean Anastasiya, not Alexander, of course).   

The movie’s title was ‘Amphibian Man’. Directed by Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Kazanskiy and accompanied by a spectacular soundtrack composed by Andrei Petrov (the whole of the USSR, little me included, was to hum the ear-wormy songs and tunes from it for years to come), the movie was first released in 1962, the same year the modern ‘The Shape of Water’ is set in (what a coincidence!) and quickly won first Soviet and then, briefly, international acclaim.

The plot of ‘Amphibian Man’, based on the eponymous novel by Russian science fiction writer Alexander Belyaev (1884 – 1942), one of my favourite writers of all time, was briefly as follows: a surgeon’s son, whose lungs were about to collapse, was saved by his own Dad, who implanted him with shark gills, which allowed the boy to live underwater. Ichtiandr (as the boy was called after the operation, from the Greek meaning ‘human fish’), eventually grows up, alternating between life on land and under water, and falls in love with a local girl. The lovers are happy until the girl’s father, a greedy baddy of a pearl-fisher, decides to capture ‘the amphibian man’.

He puts Ichtiandr in a cage, with the aim of using him as a slavish pearl spotter. Trying to enslave the ‘amphibian man’, the baddy daddy, with the help of other baddies, damages poor Ichtiandr’s lungs (and gills) even further, to the extent that the latter can no longer spend much time out of the sea. Now, the only way for the lovers to stay together is for the girl to become an amphibian creature, too. The movie ends with both of them dressed in scaly diving suits and swimming away together into the blue depths of the ocean to start a new life underwater, although the director does not make it clear whether that happens in reality or just in the lovers’ (and viewers’) imagination.

Remind you of anything? If you haven’t yet seen ‘The Shape of Water’, perhaps not. On the other hand, if like me you have seen it, you would probably agree that the plot bears striking similarities to ‘Amphibian Man’, the Russian book published in 1928 and made into a film in 1962. Even - the Amazon-owned online movie database - highlights the old Soviet film’s “similarities” with ‘The Shape of Water’, made 56 years later.

At this point, should we conclude that the makers of the latter simply nicked Aleksandr’ Belyaev’s story (it was - and still is - easy to nick plots from Soviet writers, for the USSR was not a signatory to any major international copyright conventions) and used it in their own Hollywood-inspired, politically correct interests? Nothing of the kind! Let’s hold our horses.

All things considered, the similarities of ‘The Shape of Water’ with ‘Amphibian Man’ are not half as blatant as those with the 1969 play ‘Let Me Hear You Whisper’ by American playwright Paul Zindel. Here’s the latter’s plot, as summed up by Wikipedia:

“The play revolves around Helen, a recently hired scrub-woman, at the American Biological Association Development for the Advancement of Brain Analysis. During the course of her work, Helen learns the plight of an imprisoned intelligent dolphin that is being harshly studied by scientists. Helen begins to interact with the dolphin by feeding it and playing it music. Soon the dolphin begins to talk, but to no one but her. After overhearing of a final experiment that would leave the dolphin dead, Helen attempts to rescue the dolphin in a laundry hamper, but is unable to and the dolphin is vivisected and euthanised.”

As you see, the story line is almost exactly the same as that of ‘The Shape of Water’, the only difference being that the green and slimy amphibian humanoid (‘Ichtiandr’?) had become a dolphin, kept at the American Biological Association and not in a Cold War-style laboratory. No wonder that in February 2018, David Zindel, the playwright’s son, brought a lawsuit against ‘The Shape of Water’ makers, which didn’t stop the latter from snapping up almost all Oscars at the recent Academy Awards presentation.

The next legitimate question then is whether the playwright himself can be accused of borrowing some bits of the plot from ‘Amphibian Man’, released seven years before the play was premiered and hence from Aleksandr Belyaev, too?

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the story does not end here.

Prior to Zindel, French film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet also accused del Toro, director of ‘The Shape of Water’, of plagiarising his (Jeunet’s) movie ‘The Space Between Us’, which also features an unlikely love affair between a female janitor and an aquatic creature held captive at some sinister and cruel research facility! Enough to make poor Aleksandr Belyaev turn in his grave!

Interestingly, the writer himself became the focus of a posthumous copyright dispute, when Russian publishers ‘Terra’ (almost ‘Toro’!), who thought they had acquired exclusive right to publish all the works by Belyaev, sued another Moscow publisher, AST, for violating their exclusivity and publishing the books by the increasingly popular deceased writer, too. After several appeals and setbacks, the trial is still dragging on.

What’s going on here? Are we dealing with multiple cases of blatant plagiarism or just a normal ‘great-minds-think-alike’ situation? Incidentally, the Russian version of that particular saying is, ‘Fools think alike’.

Not an easy question to answer, particularly for someone like myself who is a writer, not a lawyer. And, importantly, the writer whose own works have been repeatedly, err, copied (I was about to say ‘plagiarised’ but thought better of it and opted for a more ‘neutral’ word) and who therefore cannot be entirely impartial in this case.

Indeed, can I be objective here? Not sure, but I will try.

Here’s my own story.

One day, leafing through a freshly published Russia-based thriller in a London bookshop, I was shocked to discover that both its plot and characters were ‘borrowed’ by its author from my two non-fiction books, ‘Special Correspondent’ and ‘Dateline Freedom’. In fact, the main protagonist of the book, a Soviet investigative hack writing about the Russian mafia, was myself (only the name in the thriller was different). He had the same origins, wrote for the same magazines, won the same awards and even his appearance was similar to mine. Like me, he lived in a communal flat and had to write in a wall closet. Like me, he was harassed by the KGB. Dozens of episodes and twists of the plot were repeating my real-life investigations to the letter. Real-life Russian people from my two non-fiction books were turned into fictitious characters and a number of passages were simply copied word-for-word! Altogether, I counted 58 direct borrowings and the author (a rather successful London writer) hadn’t even bothered to credit me in the acknowledgements!

To say I was angry would be an understatement. I was absolutely furious. Having threatened legal action, I received from the novelist several apologetic, even somewhat sycophantic, letters saying that he was an admirer of my work, that he was hoping to meet me one day and that he was prepared to give me credits in the future paperback editions of his thriller.

That was certainly not enough, but I was running out of steam. In the meantime, the plagiarism saga became known in London literary circles and was even written up in a national newspaper where the novelist, it turned out, had connections. “We hear that Vitali Vitaliev is angry,” ran the paper’s Diary piece. “He thinks that his life has been stolen. But he should know that there’s no copyright for one’s life! He will get over it, we are sure.”

Fair enough, but it was not my life, it was my published books that were copied!

The final stop in the saga was put by an amicable Jewish lawyer whom I went to consult (he was kind enough to offer me free advice) in his Holborn offices. He explained that - in the absence of the ‘no-win, no-fee’ policy (which did not exist in the UK 25 years ago when the events took place), copyright litigation, with no guarantee of victory, could cost me hundreds of thousands of pounds. For reading three thick books alone, lawyers could charge anything between ten and twenty grand. For me, that was obviously the end of the matter.

“In the society where you have come from, there was no justice whatsoever,” the lawyer said when we were parting (he meant the Soviet Union, no doubt). “In the West, justice does exist, but it costs a lot of money, which is still better than having no justice at all”.

I remembered that free, yet priceless, piece of advice for the rest of my life and reacted calmly when confronted with other cases of nicking - or ‘borrowing’ - of my ideas, the latest example being my concept of travelling with vintage guide-books (Baedeker’s Murrays, Bradshaws), developed and carried out years ago in my travel books, Daily Telegraph features and short documentaries for Europe Direct TV show, and now used by a well-known TV personality in his own travelogues.

There may indeed be no copyright on ideas, but if you ask me those who prefer ‘borrowing’ someone else’s ideas to generating their own original ones do not need to be tackled by litigation. They have been penalised enough already (by God?) with their lack of originality – a very severe punishment indeed. Truly creative people will keep coming up with half a dozen new ideas in place of those ‘nicked’ from them.

One of Aleksandr Belyaev’s best (and one my favourite) novels was ‘The Man Who Found His Face’ (1940). In this story, the talented yet incredibly ugly comedian Tony Presto changes his appearance beyond recognition and even has a complete face transplant with the help of Doctor Zorn, whose clinic the actor leaves as a very handsome man. However, the change backfires: fans refuse to recognise their idol in his new beautiful guise. His friends and the woman he loves find it hard to accept his new looks, too. The comedian becomes miserable and it takes him a huge effort to eventually reinvent himself in his new guise. A powerful lesson to all those who try to pretend that they are better (more handsome, more intelligent, or more creative) than they actually are and are prepared to use other people’s looks, plots or ideas to cover up their own ineptitude.

Interestingly, the very first edition of Belyaev’s novel had the title ‘The Man Who Lost His Face’.

He should have kept it as such.

P.S. When this blog was ready to be uploaded to E&T’s web site, I learned that the initial idea of the plot for ‘The Man Who Lost His Face’ was prompted to Belyaev in 1927 by his friend of Spanish origins, an endocrinologist called… wait for it… Evgeny Toro, the exact namesake of Guillermo Del Toro, director of ‘The Shape of Water’ as well as a homophone of the name of the publisher involved in the continuing copyright dispute over Belyaev’s literary estate: ‘Terra’!

Well, what can I say? It appears that great (and not-so-great) minds can at times not just think alike, but sound alike, too. The power of coincidence is another factor that can be behind some seemingly obvious cases of ‘plagiarism’.

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