10 Clever Cinematic Re-Interpretations of Classic Writing

O Brother Where Art Thou

Suffice to say, this list goes into detail contrasting different elements of plot and character between each of these works and their original inspirations, so if you are unfamiliar with one of these and prefer to remain that way, skip on down the line.


10. Aladdin (1992)

Based on “One Thousand and One Nights”

Aladdin (1992)

“One Thousand and One Nights” is a collection of Asian and Middle Eastern stories and myths, set around the framing device of a woman who is married to a prince who kills all of his wives once he’s taken their virginity. She uses her stories to distract him, to stall her execution.

The Disney version, obviously, does not choose to adapt this element. It focuses instead on one particular story, of Aladdin and his magic lamp (perhaps the most famous of the stories), adding music, pop culture references and Gilbert Gotfried for good measure.

There is also The Thief of Baghdad to consider here, both the Raoul Walsh (1924) and Alexander Korda (1942) versions being freely borrowed from (in particular with the design of some of the action set pieces, some of the more supernatural elements not present in the original story, and most noticeably the inclusion of a thieving monkey partner).

Disney often found inspiration in classic films — just the previous year, their Beauty and the Beast was heavily influenced by Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece La belle et la bete (1949).

Speaking in general terms, they are both about a young man who finds a magic lamp, is introduced to a genie who will grant his wishes, which he uses to improve his social class and impress the sultan’s daughter (to whom he has fallen in love, and who is about to be married off by her father).

In the story there are two genies, one of which can grant infinite wishes, whereas Robin Williams’s genie is singular, limited to 3 wishes (that can’t be about love or death), and in perhaps the most inspired addition, has his own conflict: he is, essentially, a slave, and he longs to be free.

While there are certainly a great number of alterations to the story in Disney’s version, the more fundamental changes go deeper. By acknowledging the genie as a real character with wishes and desires all his own, Aladdin is challenged to use one of his wishes unselfishly.

The social politics are inevitably much more progressive as well, in particular toward class and gender. Jasmine is a self-sufficient, independently minded person, in comparison to Badr-al-Budur, her original counterpart, who is a pawn at the bidding of the men around her.

The idea of Jasmine being married off for a reason other than love is a conflict, not a given. This also begins Disney’s attempt to make their films acknowledge that not everyone is white, a streak of progressive social politics that would continue with Pocahontas, Mulan, and more recently The Princess and The Frog. It brings the story into the modern age without losing the majesty and wonder of its ancient roots.


9. Identity (2003)

Based on “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie


Identity is hyper-stylized and totally unashamed about his ludicrous it is. I will not spoil the ending, but it is wonderfully absurd. It was admirable, though, and the final result was a middling success with reasonable but unremarkable reviews. It came during in the aftermath of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, where ‘twist endings’ were starting to get on filmgoers’ collective nerves. However, as an adaptation of “And Then There Were None,” it is very effective and enthralling, a grim genre diversion.

It is a loose adaptation, to be sure– in many ways it is just more honest about the origins of its plot machinations than Friday the 13th. Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit was a hugely influential novel. Ten strangers are invited to a remote island under false pretenses, only to find that they are all being punished for past crimes and will be killed off one by one (hence the title). In the end, a final revelation (in the form of a letter from the killer to the authorities) brings the twisted tale to a tidy conclusion.

You may recognize this formula reflected in several genres, most notably the slasher film. One of the key ingredients that separates “slasher” from the broader horror genre is structural. Most slasher films rely on the tension behind waiting for each character to get killed one by one, and as the decades wore on, this has become a trope; Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and any number of copycats in the wake of Scream’s horror revival.

Remember the creepy nursery rhyme the kids sing in A Nightmare on Elm Street? How many times have you seen a version of that parodied or ripped-off? This, too, could be followed back to the novel:

“Ten little Indians went out to dine…
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indians sat up very late…
One overslept himself and then there were eight.”

And so on. This stylized countdown is a tried and true method of building tension (like the timer on a bomb – Google search ‘Hitchcock + bomb analogy’ if you haven’t heard of that before). Instead of an island, our ten find themselves stranded at a motel during a storm.

After each of the them is killed, a key is found on their body that corresponds to a room at the motel, starting with 10 and counting down. James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 To Yuma) goes all-in on the rainy, shadowy noir aesthetic, interestingly coupled with the gruesome violence as each character meets their inevitable end (in this way it is also reminiscent of Angel Heart, a gothic noir that revolves around its own crazy mystery).

The influence of Christie’s novel is interesting to examine, and Identity is a strong example of it being taken and retooled for a new purpose. “And Then There Were None” offers a certain rigidness of plot that allows a lot of creative freedom in the margins. It is not unlike a coloring book, getting to pick your own colors and choosing how much to stay inside the lines.


8. Clueless (1995)

Based on “Emma” by Jane Austen


Sometimes, simplicity can be a virtue. Take for example Clueless, a lighthearted reworking of “Emma” set in 1990s Beverly Hills. Alicia Silverstone is Cher, the Emma surrogate. She is popular, pretty and rich, the quintessential valley girl who surely loves to meddle in the romantic affairs of everyone around her.

Like her literary other, Cher thinks very highly of herself, and spends much of the story trying to play matchmaker. Her charisma, aided by Silverstone’s natural abundance of said virtue, helps to make her more sympathetic than Austen’s original Emma, about whom she famously said she might be someone that “no one but myself will much like.”

The cast is pretty stellar, starting with Silverstone and branching out through the ensemble. Brittney Murphy, Donald Faison, Stacey Dash and Paul Rudd round out the charm factory, filling in the roles of Harriet, Robert, Isabella and George, respectively.

Clueless is rather intelligent about the transition in time, a cultural shift of roughly 190 years. This story is very specifically about social culture, and the film manages to be quite clever in the ways it moves these pieces. The social values change (allowing for a lot of comedy to stem from cultural humor), but Emma/Cher has to grow in the same critical ways.


7. Forbidden Planet (1956)

Based on “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare


The 1950s was something of a heyday for American science fiction; The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World, The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Forbidden Planet was among the greatest of them, a fairly high concept reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

It also came sporting all the best art deco ideas of what the 1950s thought the future would look like. “The Tempest” is not one of the bard’s most adapted works (and may have been his last play written solo), and so this has got to be the most interesting take (some may argue for Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books).

Prospero is a magician, exiled to an island with his daughter, Miranda, after being betrayed by his brother Antonio. On the island he educates himself in the ways of magic, and uses it to lure in a ship carrying Antonio, the King, and Ferdinand (the King’s son), who falls in love with Miranda. He does this by manufacturing the titular tempest to sweep them ashore as if they crashed.

Forbidden Planet adapts the central plotting: Walter Pidgeon stars as Dr. Morbius (aka Prospero), Anne Francis as his daughter Alta, and Leslie Nielsen, in his early career as a dramatic actor, as the Ferdinand figure. Instead of a shipwreck, it is a mission via spaceship, and instead of magic, Morbius has tapped into alien technology.

The magic of Shakespeare’s day is not unlike the “alien tech” of the film. Prospero is a rational character, and his magic is distinguished specifically as not occult. What is magic, outside of religion, if not phenomena science has not explained yet?

There is also Ariel, a spirit that works for Prospero (more like a servant paying a debt). When Forbidden Planet takes us from the Earth of the past to a fictional planet in the far future, Ariel turns into the inimitable Robbie the Robot, who stands tall in the film’s hugely famous poster art.

Robbie is one of the classic images of 1950s sci-fi, a glorious artifact from a time when big, clunky robots that spoke in monotone was the perceived wave of the future. Like Robbie, Forbidden Planet is a beautiful product of its time, and one of the best films in a densely populated genre.


6. Scotland PA (2001)

Based on: “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

Scotland PA

“Macbeth” has been modernized and updated and reimagined over and over through the years. Polanski made the definitive classical version in the 70s, a stark, violent, bleak vision. Kurosawa made a masterpiece when he transitioned it to feudal Japan (everything is better with Samurais). But in 2001, William Morrissette did the impossible: he made the epic tragedy of murder and regret into a comedy.

A black comedy, certainly, but that it is even the slightest bit fun is a miracle. And because it is taking such a serious play so lightly, it can really make some leaps with the way it turns the pieces of the play into its own new world. It is modern day, for one, and the most inspired joke in the film stems from the simple re-tooled spelling of the character’s name: McBeth, the man who invented the drive-thru window.

Opening on three hippies in place of the three witches, you get the tone from the start. Once the drama starts to play out in the cutthroat world of fast food management, it is an easy ride as one recognizable feature is warped into something else — Lady Macbeth’s imagined stain of blood (symbolizing her eternal guilt) becomes a burn from the deep fryer, Scotland becomes Pennsylvania, and best of all, Macduff becomes Christopher Walken.

While the film would not hold a candle to the best interpretations of the play, it is also completely incomparable, an enjoyable perversion of the source material that is not likely to be recreated.