Hollywood pushes out a seemingly endless supply of movies based on novels, comic books, or old TV shows. Every so often, however, studios try their hand at adapting poems for the big screen. Here are 11 examples.
1. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Joel and Ethan Coen released a comedy about a trio of convicts trying to escape a Mississippi chain gang only to stumble into a series of misadventures and misfortune. With George Clooney playing Ulysses Everett McGill, the Odysseus surrogate, O Brother, Where Art Thou? took ancient Greek poet Homer’s episodic structure of The Odyssey and married it with absurd comedy and old-timey bluegrass music from T-Bone Burnett. The Coens didn’t read the epic poem while making the movie and actor Tim Blake Nelson was reportedly the only person on set who was familiar with Homer’s work (he holds a degree in Classics from Brown University).
Director Wolfgang Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff took on Homer’s Iliad for the action-adventure film adaptation Troy. With Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector, Troy saw moderate success at the box office and a mixed critical response when it was released during the summer of 2004. Many critics slammed the film for not being faithful to Homer’s original epic poem.
Terry Gilliam’s solo directorial debut Jabberwocky was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same name from Through the Looking-Glass. While the adaptation received mixed reviews, Jabberwocky has grown to be a cult classic over the years. The fantasy film featured Gilliam’s trademark dark and satirical humor while showcasing his vast imagination as an artist and a director.
Mel Gibson’s Braveheart was based on a fifteenth-century Scottish epic poem titled “The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace” or simply, “The Wallace.” While the film received heavy criticism for being historically inaccurate, Braveheart won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, in 1996.
James Franco starred as American poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl, which follows the poet’s life as he was writing the poem “Howl” at the start of the Beat Generation. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman structured the film as if it were a poem and Howl made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010.
6. Bright Star
Academy Award-winning writer and director Jane Campion made the romance Bright Star in 2009. Based on the poem “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art,” the film followed the last three years of poet John Keats’ (Ben Whishaw) life and his steamy relationship with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Bright Star premiered at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, with some critics dubbing the film Jane Campion’s best work since 1993's The Piano.
7. Disney’s Mulan
In 1998, the Walt Disney Company released their 36th animated feature film, Mulan, which was based on the ancient Chinese poem “Ballad of Mulan.” The film and poem told the story of Hua Mulan, a young woman who takes her elderly father's place in the army during the Northern Wei Dynasty.
Beowulf, the second film in director Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture 3D trilogy, was based on the Old English epic poem of the same name. With the help of screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, Robert Zemeckis adapted the poem into an action-adventure visual spectacle in 3D.
9. Short Cuts
Based on the work of writer Raymond Carver, the Academy Award-nominated film Short Cuts took its inspiration from nine short stories and a poem titled “Lemonade” from the minimalist author. While director Robert Altman connected Carver’s nine short stories into one cohesive film, he also cleverly peppered images and references to the poem throughout Short Cuts. The poem also informs the viewer on the film’s bittersweet tone and themes.
10. For Colored Girls
In 2010, Tyler Perry adapted Ntozake Shange’s Tony Award-nominated experimental choreopoem (poetry and dance) “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” for the big screen. While there was some Oscar buzz surrounding the film before it was released, Perry’s penchant for melodrama got in the way of Shange’s prose. The film version of For Colored Girls saw moderate box office success and lukewarm critical response.
11. The Nightmare Before Christmas
While working as an animator for the Walt Disney Company in the early 1980s, Tim Burton wrote and developed a poem entitled “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! animated TV specials, along with the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," inspired Burton's spooky poem. In 1982, he pitched it to Disney after the success of his short film Vincent. The Mouse House was interested in making The Nightmare Before Christmas into a short film or TV special, but left the project to gestate for the next decade until Burton produced the feature film in 1993.