7. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) – The Empire of Lights (René Magritte, 1953 – 1954)
A less direct adaptation, although it is rather obvious when one compares the artworks set up against each other, how the poster for The Exorcist takes from the different paintings in René Magritte’s series called The Empire of Lights.
The paintings depict the paradoxical visual of a light blue sky, set against a dark nighttime street, and only lit by a single street lamp. This depiction of the lonely street lamp against the darkness of the street has become a famous scene in The Exorcist where Father Merrin stands in front of the house: a scene which was also chosen to be the image for the now iconic poster.
Another similarity of the two is the small light from the window in the up left corner. Although we don’t know what the intention was when Magritte painted it, those who have seen the film, know exactly what awaits Father Merrin standing on the street, looking up at it.
In general the atmosphere of the painting, as well as that of the poster, fits perfectly to the genre of the film, and it’s easy to see why the crew behind the film chose to go in that direction with the poster. It’s dark, scary, and it works aesthetically with the almost clair-obscure-like feel.
René Magritte’s paintings make no logical sense, seeing as the bottom half of the picture collides with the top half of the picture (therefore the title), which is another element that fits very well with the film: the unexplainable elements in life, whether it be the lights or a young girl possessed by a demon.
Seeing the poster for the first time, and not knowing what the film is about, the positioning of the tall, dark and anonymous man is extremely clever. He seems mystical and dangerous, but we still want to know more, thus indicating a particularly smart move, combining the paintings with the character in the poster.
6. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) – The Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563)
Metropolis is known for its famous Heinz Schulz-Neudamm poster, which is also the most expensive film poster in the world. However, it’s not the only great poster the film has. There is also the 1927 French release poster, which is not only masterful in its own right, but which also takes inspiration from The Tower of Babel. The story of the tower of Babel, which the 1563 painting displays, is even used within the film.
Comparing the poster to the painting it’s partly in the triangle composition we see the resemblance, as well as it’s the motif of the majestic towers. In general they look very much alike, the poster being the modern and futuristic version, which is also the story that is being told through Frits Lang’s classic film.
The materials and aesthetics might have changed, but the people and their naïve egoism behind the tower, is still very much the same. Where the poster stands out from the painting, is with its more commercial look. This is seen with the use of its colours, as well as the big red letters. The blue tones of the buildings go in the background, as the bright red immediately stands out, making the viewer aware of the films title right away.
The scene in which the story of the tower of Babel becomes truly relevant, and is therefore used for the poster, is when Maria talks to the workers for the first time, telling them the story of Babel. This story brilliantly sums up what has happened in the city of Metropolis: the divination of the intellectuals (the brain) and the workers (the hands).
The biblical myth is hereby retold through a socialist lens, with the tragedy of Fredersen and Rotwang’s vision turning into an oppressive and elitist society. The film, as well as the poster, in this way uses the biblical myth to tell the ideological story of the horrible division between the hands and the brain.
5. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) – Starry Night (Vincent van Gogh, 1889)
This poster, slightly playing with the concept of plagiarism, is a very nice homage to Vincent van Gogh’s classic painting Starry Night. The painting is instantly recognizable due to its significant style, and along with lots of poetry, fiction, and different designs, the poster for Midnight in Paris also makes use of this recognizability.
What makes this poster more than just a copy of the brilliant painting is the way it takes chances: for example by combining the techniques of a painting and photography. It gives the poster a certain creative integrity, while also combining the best from a classic painting with the commercial parts of a poster, and having the main character at the focus of it all (as well as the names of the cast).
The poster also carries on the beauty of the painting, using the colour scheme with a cold/warm contrast, as well as the use of two primary colours (yellow and blue) set up against each other, creating a lot of dynamic, besides from the turbulent brush strokes and movements of the painting.
The story of the film follows famous artists through different eras in history and therefore it is of course quite relevant to use the direct reference. Other than that the main character is quite confused and overwhelmed by the Parisian beauty and his own imagination, making the poster seem even more relevant.
Other than that, Vincent van Gogh isn’t a character in the film like other artists, which therefore makes the reference to him on the poster a nice if slightly illogical gesture.
4. Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) – In Voluptas Mors (Phillip Halsman & Salvador Dalí, ca. 1951)
Following a previous entry on the list, here comes another Salvador Dalí-inspired film poster. This time, however, it’s way subtler. It’s actually extremely discrete and maybe precisely therefore, so much more ingenious. The poster quite cleverly combines the Death Head Hawkmoth with the scull from the In Voluptas Mors photography and hereby provides the viewer with a chilling image.
In the black and white photo, taken by Phillip Halsman, it’s not so much the mysterious and dubious looking Dalí as it is the macabre scull created out of precisely positioned naked women that has been used in the brilliant poster from The Silence of the Lambs, as a small reminder of how every detail has some kind of importance in this film.
The naked female bodies used in the photography is a symbol that also plays an important part in the film and its plot, and hereby it’s a nice small hint for those who like to study the film down to the smallest detail.
The importance of the female is however also represented on a much larger scale, with the use of Jodie Foster’s motionless, though symmetrically beautiful, face. It makes the poster easy to take in at once, as well as it credits the importance of Jodie Foster and her character.
The moth placed in front of the mouth also contributes to the creepy feeling the viewer gets when seeing the poster, which is the same kind of atmosphere that the photography brings. So even though the moth has also been put on the poster because of the plot, it has a significant importance in connection to the eerie, though superb, aesthetics as well.
The title In Voluptas Mors can be loosely translated to: ‘In pleasure, there is death’. Hereby the symbolism of the connection between death and sex is underlined, and it makes for a great reference for the horror-thriller.
3. E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982) – The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo, ca. 1511)
One of the most classic art works in all of history and one that has been duplicated an endless amount of times. Of course, film posters are no exception to this. It has been done in more silly ways (take for example the poster for Bruce the Almighty), and then it has been done to perfection – with E.T. The reference is obvious, but the poster is still deeply original.
The period in history when Michelangelo painted the story of Adam’s creation was a time in which artists started to rebel against the static harmony of the renaissance, religion as they knew it, as well as the geocentric worldview.
Times were changing, and artists searched for more symbolic and expressive art, as well as individualism. Life was created in the compositions of the paintings, but they did not lose the overall harmony when looked at from afar.
This was what Michelangelo did exceptionally well, and one of the reasons why his work has been reused over and over again. He wanted to create unfamiliar worlds, which seems to be something Spielberg carried on to his film and its poster.
There are several things that makes this poster work: There’s an intensive use of ‘modern’ dark blue colours that draws the eye [e.g. Inception, Scream, The Exorcist], a simple one-coloured background, a simple but intriguing motif, cohesiveness due to the hands meeting, and of course, a very recognizable and beloved reference to art history. Other than that, there’s of course also the story of creation and different worlds meeting in both of the works.
2. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)– Ophelia (Sir John Everett Millais, 1851 – 1852)
Ophelia is inspired by the Shakespeare play Hamlet, and the poster for Melancholia is inspired by the painting, just as it’s inspired by the story that lies behind the angelic woman, Ophelia, lying in the dark water.
It’s a morbid scenario, which Lars von Trier always seems to seek towards in his films, and which was also quite the fascination in the Victorian times. And the death of a delicate woman is what ties the two pictures together.
When first seeing the poster, it’s almost comparable to a nice wedding shot – though with a slightly dark toned background. Nonetheless, it’s Kirsten Dunst, it’s flowers, and it’s a classic strapless wedding gown with a veil for days.
However, when given a second glance, the small details seem to stick out: the cold facial expression, the green leaves and lilies, and the left arm which is immersed in water. Then the viewer realizes that she’s lying half-submerged in a pond, and the theme of death suddenly seems very urgent, while the reference to Ophelia slowly sets in.
The story of Ophelia is as follows: when her father is killed, she goes completely mad and ends up drowning herself in a creek. This does of course give rise to the question: is Justine (Kristen Stewart) going to do the same? Is this the ending of the film? It gives rise to questions about her fate, hereby instantly submerging the audience in the story, wanting to know more.
It’s an extremely smart move in terms of advertising, since the poster combines the story of Ophelia, without being too obvious about the reference. It’s still a poster that looks extremely interesting and stunning to all kinds of cinemagoers, even if they don’t necessarily know the story or painting of Ophelia.
1. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) – Job Cigarette (Alphonse Mucha, 1896)
The timeless film noir-inspired Polanski film, of course also has a timeless poster. It’s quite artistic and it very much carries the style of the JOB Cigarette paper covers, distinctively comparable with one from Mucha.
The style of the Chinatown poster, along with posters like Jaws and A Clockwork Orange, all attest to a time when artists (often illustrators or lithographers) were allowed to use their own personal style within the poster. The result would be posters like the one for Chinatown drawing inspiration from something like a cigarette poster – which also carries the ‘restriction’ of having to sell something.
Along with the fame Mucha’s advertising poster gathered, the image of the woman (also known as the ‘Mucha Woman’) has become very iconic in itself. So much so, that not only does the film poster use the luring face of a beautiful woman (Faye Dunaway), it also lets the cigarette smoke resemble the famous swirls which the Mucha Woman has in her hair.
Then again, the cigarette smoke in itself, isn’t just because Gittens smokes and because it looks very noir, it’s just as much an inspiration from Mucha and his poster art.
Other than that, there’s also the use of the frame around the picture that is broken only by a bit of smoke, a hat, and some hair. It’s these small details that make these posters worth giving an extra glance. And although there are some ‘mishaps’, the frame does give the posters an overall cohesiveness, so that the viewer doesn’t get overwhelmed with too many details at once.
One of the main differences between the two posters, and one which might have been a wise choice for Chinatown commercially, is the bright yellow. It sticks out, fills a lot of space, and generally catches the eye.
Although the film poster does have some qualities reminiscent of Art-Deco (it’s a modern noir), the poster isn’t as linear and symmetrical, and therefore fits more in the style of Art Nouveau, which is a decade Mucha in many ways represents.
Take for example the elegant smoky waves, the typography, and the simplicity of the beautiful woman, which are all indications of the influence Mucha had on Jim Pearsall when he designed the immensely brilliant poster for Chinatown.
Author Bio: Dicte Houmøller is a Danish film enthusiast who likes to think of herself as a future screenwriter. For now she tries to cruise around on her skateboard and look cool, while coming up with great scenes for her next script.