The old adage goes, “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.” So you can’t argue with the source material these films chose. Some film adaptations are pretty faithful retellings (though they usually keep the same name as the classic book they’re based upon), while some are updated versions. And for some of these films, the source material serves as only an inspiration – a sort-of jumpstart in the right direction.
Adhering closely to classic material doesn’t mean a movie’s going to be a classic itself. But that can benefit the audience, as well. I mean, we would have much rather seen Emma Stone as a maligned teenager in Easy A than we would have all dolled up as Hester Prynne and trial for her life, right?
This film actually sticks pretty closely to the story of Les Liaisons dangereuses, which was actually faithfully remade in the 80s as Dangerous Liaisons, starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman, and a young Keanu Reeves. Cruel Intentions does take a few liberties with the story, however. Knowing that teen audiences might feel a little distanced from bored adult French aristocrats, the 90s take gives us bored Manhattan teenagers in the form of Ryan Phillipe, Selma Blair, Reese Witherspoon, and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
For anyone who made their way through The Scarlet Letter in high school or college, they know that it isn’t exactly a fun romp. In a troubled, Puritanical society, women labeled as adulterers are outcasts, and one such woman, Hester Prynne, must bear the weight of those allegations in the colonial times. Fortunately, Emma Stone’s character in Easy A only has to face the scorn of fellow high schoolers, and she’s able to do so with a great deal more poise and levity than Hester was able to. No offense to Hester. Times were tougher then.
Yup. It seems even a creative powerhouse like Disney was drawing from history and previous works for its roster of animated films. While The Lion King doesn’t follow the exact arc of Hamlet, the similarities are numerous enough that it’s widely regarded as having lifted plot points from the legendary play. Two royal families, both with bad uncles, in which both patriarchs (Mufasa and King Hamlet) die, then appear as ghosts telling them to take revenge on their conniving uncles. And both Hamlet and Simba do. However, Simba’s fate, as well as the fate of the rest of his family, fares a little better than Hamlet’s.
Again, this isn’t a perfect retelling of the source material, but it’s impossible to ignore the similarities. Whereas Trading Places features a successful Wall Streeter (Dan Aykroyd) unwillingly switching places with an impoverished grifter for the amusement of two old men, the prince and the pauper switch places willingly. Both learn a little something about walking in another person’s shoes, order is restored, and the rich person ultimately gives the poorer participant a leg up. What’s not to like?
It seems that even comic juggernaut Steve Martin wasn’t immune from reaching deep into history for his source material. Martin, who wrote the screenplay, couldn’t help but add some of his trademark quirk into this romantic comedy. While Cyrano was known to be a smooth talker, he had a famously wide nose that made him self-conscious around women. Martin gave himself a really LONG nose (like, comically long) as a twist on the convention. It worked. Though it hasn’t stayed in the popular lexicon, Roxanne is a pretty masterful spin on some iconic source material.
Though Pixar was riding high from its 1995 premiere Toy Story, the next film went back for its story. Wayyyyyyy back. To the time of Greek fablist Aesop, who presented his readers with the story of a grasshopper who spent all spring and summer screwing around while ants worked to put away food for the winter. Sure enough, winter came, and the grasshopper was up a creek. Of course, A Bug’s Life fleshes out that story a little better than my one sentence did, but you get the idea.
There’s some debate as the extent of influence that the familiar children's tale had on the Steven Spielberg sci-fi odyssey, but much of that has to do with the fact that A.I. is openly based on another short story, “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” (published in 1969). However, the similarities between A.I. and Pinocchio can’t be ignored. Wooden boy (robot boy in 'A.I.), essentially comes to life from his master, then begins to question his own existence. Pinocchio is even referenced in the film by the boy, played by Haley Joel Osment. That’s a parallel too obvious to ignore.
This may be the most commonly entry on this list. Not only did it provide breakout roles for Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but it also managed to turn on a whole bunch of teenage moviegoers to a thinly-veiled adaptation of Shakespeare, which must have delight English teachers everywhere. The plot of both works is essentially, “An overprotective dad won’t let the younger daughter date until the older daughter dates, so the younger daughter and her suitor scramble to play matchmaker for the older daughter.” Sure, it’s simple. But it’s effective. Which is why Shakespeare still resonates so much hundreds and hundreds of years later.
The plot of She’s All That has become such a trope and cliche that it seems strange to pin it to just one source. But Pygmalion did it first, and then we saw it in My Fair Lady. And a little bit in Cinderella even. A charming fellow (or popular jock in this case) takes on a wager to turn a “frumpy” girl into the prom queen. He succeeds, she finds out that his intentions were the result of a bet, gets pissed, then forgives him and happily ever after while Sixpence None the Richer plays. The only logical stretch in this film was trying to get us to believe that Rachel Leigh Cook wasn’t hot behind those overalls and glasses.
Clueless has certainly established a life of its own as a charming slice-of-life 90s film, but it draws some of its source material from no less than Jane Austen’s Emma. However, whereas Emma is self-important and stubborn, Cher is largely selfless and good-intentioned. However, both are a little spacey, both are rich, and both love playing matchmaker. Sure, it’s not a perfect re-telling, but that’s a good thing. We like Clueless just the way it is.
Yet another film starring Steve Martin, written by Steve Martin, based on a literary classic. I guess that would make him the academic of this bunch. This little-seen film features Martin playing against type as a bit of a jerk, who finally returns to humanity after experiencing the love of a little girl who “adopts” him. The only real difference (besides one being modern) between 'Silas Marner' and the film is that the the girl in the film finds out who her parents are at a younger age, and a custody battle ensues. You can probably guess how that goes, though.
Of course the Gus van Zant indie film starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves can’t just be drawn from one classic work, but rather three. There are two plots running through these works, and Idaho draws on the one which follows Henry IV’s son’s rebellion against his father. The heir shirks responsibility and just generally screws around until it’s time to get his inheritance. Of course, the setting of the modern film would likely keep anyone from thinking that this is anything but a tale of some misguided guys in the heartland.