10 Clever Cinematic Re-Interpretations of Classic Writing

5. Moulin Rouge (2001)

Based on “La Traviata,” “Le Boheme,” and “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge! was a big deal when it came out — commercially successful, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actress. It fit well into a landscape where the movie musical was having resurgence, and played off nostalgia for classic pop and rock songs. It was “American Idol” with A-list celebrities, pop hits displaced in time, remixed and retooled and amplified.

Luhrmann rendered it in an array of vivid colors and dizzying motion, sustaining a pace so brisk in may nearly beat Michael Bay for most cuts in a single film. Not only did Luhrmann and company travel their song selection through time, famously mixing all types of love songs into “The Elephant Medley,” music was not the only piece of culture they chopped up and appropriated.

Basically the entirely storyline is taken in pieces from three very famous operas. Let’s try to break these down: “La traviata” is a famous Italian opera by Guiseppe Verdi about a woman who falls in love with a man of higher class, only to reject him and eventually die of tuberculosis.

It is based on La dame aux Camélias (1852), a play which was itself based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas. The central through line on Moulin Rouge! is here, though the classes switch between genders, and this is where you see what is co-opted from “La boheme” (an opera Luhrmann actually directed on the stage at one time).

Christian’s low social status and bohemian lifestyle comes from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, as well as Satine’s persona as a popular singer, a love triangle, and some more tuberculosis. The final piece of inspiration that is being remolded is the tragedy of Orpheus, which Luhrmann repurposes for Christian’s character.

Whereas his counterpart from “La boheme,” Rodolfo, is a playwright, here he is a songwriter. Like Orpheus, he is an artist who travels into the “underworld” to save his lost love. There have been innumerable versions of the Orpheus myth, and it is applied pretty broadly in the film, although Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld is one of the more specific versions that can be seen on display in the film’s patchwork.

There is something very ambitious about Luhrman’s pet project, a pastiche of not only song but also story. By having Christian “create” all these songs the audience actually loves (or, at least, remembers), there is an easy emotional connection tied to his plight to win over his love.

This allows Luhrmann the freedom to explore what it would look like if modern filmmaking technique, throwback song selection and classic opera crashed into one another at high speed. At the very least, it is pretty singular in the canon of American musicals.


4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Based on “The Odyssey” by Homer


Joel and Ethan Coen are world-class writer-directors who have wielded massive influence over the last two generations of filmmakers. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is their unabashedly silly masterpiece, in many ways a tonal sequel to Raising Arizona, their second film and the one that gained them mainstream success. It is Homer’s The Odyssey by way of a the Three Stooges — that is, even though the Coens famously admitted to never having actually read the epic poem:

“Between the cast and us, Tim Nelson is the only one who’s actually read [it].” Some fans of theirs aren’t buying it, though, considering they are known for their playfully enigmatic interviews. The filmmaking duo has a bit of a mischievous streak, too. Recall that Fargo opens with a title card explaining that it’s a true story with only the names changed, when in fact it was a work of complete fiction.

Whether or not they read Homer’s classic, they know the broad strokes — as do the rest of us. “The Odyssey” is hands down one of the most influential written works in human history, the exemplar of the Monomyth, the archetypal “hero’s journey.” It is recognizable whether or not we have read it, because we have seen it played out more times than we tend to recognize.

George Clooney is Ulysses Everett McGill, replacing Homer’s Odysseus, recreated now as an affable but narcissistic con man and small time criminal. He is trying to make it back home to his wife after escaping a chain gang with two fellow convicts (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson), each dumber than the last. His wife is Penny (Penelope from the poem), here played by Holly Hunter, a Coen alum.

There is still the blind prophet who predicts their journey’s trials, Poseidon is transformed into Sheriff Cooley (mixed with a little Cool Hand Luke), three beautiful women bathing in a nearby riverbed stand-in for the Sirens of the sea, and perhaps the most obvious alternate: John Goodman with a patch over his eye to serve as our lumbering Cyclops.

The Coens are no stranger to pulling inspiration from the classics, clearly admirers of form and genre. Miller’s Crossing is an ode to 1930s mob films, The Hudsucker Proxy to Frank Capra, The Man Who Wasn’t There to film noir and the French New Wave.

The Big Lebowski is meant to feel like the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, A Serious Man is basically the Story of Job, and Barton Fink pits Dante’s Inferno up against Hollywood politics. And yet, ultimately, this screwball misadventure (and their body of work in whole) is birthed solely from the imaginations of Joel and Ethan Coen.

It is almost more fun to believe they really didn’t read “The Odyssey.”


3. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Based on “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Ever since it was published, “A Christmas Carol” was a staple in literature, in theatre, and eventually in cinema. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge has been ingrained in the imagination of every child born since, and every generation of artists have handed it down to the next. Alastair Sim, George C. Scott and Albert Finney have burned into film three of the most beloved incarnations of the mean-spirited miser.

Bill Murray played a warped version in the cult classic Scrooged. The list of television shows and kids’ cartoons that have parodied it is, almost literally, endless. It’s a Wonderful Life is born from it! And Disney co-opted the name for their own uber-wealthy, greedy miser character (Scrooge McDuck, as if you need to be reminded).

And yet one of the most effective renditions, of the thousands in existence, both in terms of dramatic power and in telling the story, is A Muppet Christmas Carol. This modern classic casts the characters with their deep ensemble of lovable muppets — save for a few instances of actual humans appearing, in particular Scrooge himself as played by Michael Caine.

Caine was an inspired choice that proved they took the story seriously, and he is able to rend real emotion here. Where some actors would phone in a performance for what is ostensibly a children’s film, Caine brings the full weight of his innate skill and accumulated experience, giving us a performance on par with the best of them.

What could have easily been a trifle, a fun but slight interpretation featuring some cute, colorful animal puppets, is anything but. It allows for darkness, for sadness, uninterested in watering it down for the kids and instead fully earning the cathartic third act change of heart. They do this by not washing over the elemental sadness of Ebenezer, displaying his spite and anger, only to explore how this lonely hermit gave up on the world around him after having his heart broken.

It is also very, very funny, and not in that way where there are jokes for the kids, and then jokes for the adults. These jokes are just funny, and kids and adults can largely enjoy them on the same level. Our narrators, Gonzo and Ratso Rizzo, are hysterical and loaded with charisma.

This was the first Muppet feature made after Jim Henson passed away. A lovely legacy to leave behind, engaging kids by taking them seriously, and affording them the chance to feel something other than the easiest emotions. God bless us, everyone!


2. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Based on “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

There is no shortage of film adaptation of the works of William Shakespeare (you’ve read about two on this list alone), never mind the tragedy of “Hamlet,” likely his play with the most movie adaptations in existence.

From more conventional incarnations like Laurence Oliver’s (1948), Franco Zefferelli’s (starring Mel Gibson, 1990) and Kenneth Branagh’s (1996), to non-traditional interpretations such as Michael Almereyda’s modernized and Americanized version with Ethan Hawke (2000) and Disney’s The Lion King. Add to that list The Bad Sleep Well, Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant reworking of the tragedy, relocated from 17th Century Denmark to the world of big business in post-World War II Japan.

The film opens on a banquet after a wedding. A cake is delivered toward the mid-point of this long sequence. It is a detailed model of a corporate building, but a very specific building, with one very specific window marked with a red rose. This is Kurosawa’s version of the play within the play, when Hamlet puts on a staged version of the crime he seeks revenge over in order to “catch the conscience of the king” (and prove guilt through his reaction).

Iwabuchi, the Vice President of the company, is in attendance at the banquet (it’s his daughter’s wedding). He is our Claudius, and it is his reaction that Nishi, our Hamlet-esque character, is seeking. The fact that this scene is placed at the top of the film speaks to the idea that Kurosawa is only conceptualizing “Hamlet” for his takedown of corporate corruption greed.

It is far from a literal adaptation, unlike his films Throne of Blood and Ran, which gorgeously adapt “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” respectively. Iwabuchi is not Nishi’s stepfather, instead he is his father-in-law. Nishi is older than Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Yoshiko (Ophelia, more or less) is crippled (forcing extra empathy), and in the most dramatic change: here, our Hamlet is not of the royal class, but the working class, and has married into the elite.

All of the pieces are there, reassembled into something new: the dead father, possibly murdered by an authority figure. Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio and many other characters are represented in varying ways. By moving the chronology of events and establishing new motivations lurking beneath the surface, Kurosawa finds fresh avenues through which to explore the broad themes of the play (mortality, ambition, vengeance) in a way that related to his modern world.

It is in the way Kurosawa relates them to their new time and place that is the most revealing. In keeping with that shift, it takes on more than a bit of film noir’s sensuous aesthetic, and is bleak and cynical in a fashion that is more in tune with noir than the romanticism of Hamlet’s downfall.

Here, his downfall is offscreen, and any sense of righteous satisfaction is stripped away. Where Shakespeare’s Denmark is building to war, Kurosawa’s Japan has just finished one, and is trying to rebuild, and redefine, itself. And Kurosawa makes an arguably more tragic ending, where the good guys lose… and they will most likely keep on losing.


1. The Decalogue (1988)

Based on The Ten Commandments

Decalogue 1

Krzysztof Kieslowski is one of the greatest filmmakers of a generation, and this may be his masterpiece. A Polish mini series originally made for television, Kieslowski tells ten different stories, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. It is not as literal as it sounds, each film finding a unique way to explore the themes implicit in each rule.

This is an adaptation in spirit, not a Sunday school sermon. They mostly take place in and around a Warsaw housing project, with characters on occasion crossing paths from one film to the next. One character, unnamed, appears in nearly all of the films. He is always in the background, and he just watches. He witnesses, never interceding in their affairs.

Is this God, or a messianic figure? Much like the film itself, it is likely less didactic than that, but this unnamed watcher helps create a sense of wholeness – that this isn’t ten short films as much as it is one, interconnected epic.

The morality that comes along with the Commandments (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet, don’t cheat, etc) is explored in ways more nuanced than overt. Kieslowski, speaking to the origin of the project:

“The films should be influenced by the individual Commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our daily lives … We were aware the no philosophy or ideology had ever challenged the fundamental tenants of the Commandments during their several thousand years of existence, yet they are nevertheless transgressed on a daily basis.”

The first film, “I am the Lord thy God, Though shalt have no other gods before me” concerns a professor who believes his computer to be infallible. “Though shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” tells the story of an impotent doctor who pushes his wife to get a lover to satisfy her.

Some are more direct than others, where “Honor thy father and thy mother” involves a character directly disobeying the wishes of her father, and “Thou shalt not kill” centers around a sociopath who murders for fun who, when caught, is defended by an attorney who vehemently opposed the death penalty (this one, as well as “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” were extended into independent feature films as well).

To try and describe each of these and the myriad subtexts that each allows, the questions they raise and the subtle grace of each film’s construction would be to need another few thousand words. This is required viewing, a work of dazzling philosophical scope. It’s the only film on this list with no character to cling to or plot to reference in its source material.

It is an adaptation purely of theme, of perspective. Kieslowski adapts a list of fewer than 100 words into one of the seminal cinematic explorations of the human condition.

Author Bio: Ryan Jeffrey is an independent filmmaker in Queens, New York. He’s been a film buff since he was a kid, and enjoys being able to talk about the films he loves and explore what makes them great.