Fine Line Features
ByPaul Gaita/May 22, 2023 6:15 am EST
Depending on which source you read, there are only three, six, or 36 different types of plots from which artists have to choose in order to tell stories in any medium, so it stands to reason that there might be some repetition in the long history of culture and entertainment. Movies are no exception: the history of cinema is marked by numerous adaptations of the same source material — the number of films based on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "A Christmas Carol," and "Frankenstein" would fill your streaming queue for months on end — or variations on well-worn plot tropes (movies based on the "ugly duckling," "lone wolf lawman," or "rags to riches" premises are too numerous to count).
Of course, what sets a movie apart isn't just the story, but how it's told. "Frankenstein," for example, has been delivered in dozens of different ways, from period and modern dress to comedies and gory thrillers. Reboots, in which an established franchise is restarted, or re-imaginings, in which a familiar story is told in ways that differ greatly from the source matieral, have also become popular ways to gain new mileage from well-worn material. In some cases, filmmakers have found unique ways to tell a story that makes it fresh all over again; the following are examples of two or more movies that told the same story but in completely different and radical ways.
Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty
The Oscar-nominated 2014 Disney release "Maleficent" typifies one of the most common ways to retell a familiar plot: from the perspective of another character in the story. Robert Stromberg's film is a live-action reworking of Disney's 1959 animated film "Sleeping Beauty" from the viewpoint of its established villain, the evil fairy Maleficent, and adds a second spin courtesy of the Broadway musical "Wicked," which producer Don Hahn cited in a 2016 interview as an influence on the story.
Just as "Wicked" recasts the Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz" as a scorned free thinker, "Maleficent" positions the "Sleeping Beauty" antagonist (Angelina Jolie) as a magical being spurned and later betrayed by Stefan, the human boy who becomes king (Sharlto Copley). Maleficient's curse on King Stefan's daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), became an act of revenge for years of abuse instead of the social slighting that inspired the curse in the Disney animated film. Audiences were entranced by the fresh take on the fairy tale, generating a worldwide box office take of more than $759 million for the film; a sequel, "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil," followed in 2019, and a third title is reportedly in development.
Forbidden Planet and The Tempest
William Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" has received far fewer screen adaptations than works like "Romeo and Juliet" or "Macbeth," and the best-known cinematic takes on the play deviate from the source material to varying degrees. Julie Taymor directed a version with Helen Mirren playing a female version of its magician hero, Prospero, while Paul Mazursky moved the action to a film shoot on a modern-day Greek island. Directors like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman have all delivered radical interpretations of the text, but few have moved as far away as 1956's "Forbidden Planet."
The planet Altair IV takes the place of the island setting in Shakespeare's play: there, a scientist named Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter (Anne Francis) use the technology of a long-dead race to create technological marvels. When a spaceship arrives, the crew (led by Leslie Nielsen) discover that Morbius's "magic" has also produced a monster — an analog of Shakespeare's brutish Caliban, here depicted as an invisible creature spawned from Morbius' unconscious mind.
Allusions to Shakespeare abound throughout "Forbidden Planet," but none more memorable than Robby the Robot, its version of Prospero's spirit/fairy assistant Ariel. Designed and built by MGM's art and props department, Robby stood apart from many of the clunky, boxy robots seen in '50s sci-fi. It eventually became one of the genre's most beloved icons, appearing in countless other films and television shows, including "Gremlins," "The Twilight Zone," and "Lost in Space."
My Own Private Idaho and Henry IV
Fine Line Features
How does a movie about a narcoleptic, road-tripping hustler echo William Shakespeare's plays? By finding parallels between its modern-day protagonists and Shakespeare's wayward royals, as director Gus Van Sant did with his third feature, the award-winning "My Own Private Idaho." Van Sant drew upon a variety of sources to fashion his script, including Orson' Welles' 1966 film "Chimes at Midnight" — itself a radical reworking of several of Shakespeare's historical plays, including Parts 1 and 2 of "Henry IV" and "Henry V." "['Chimes' is] really a story that could happen at any time," Van Sant told HighSnobiety.com. "Prince Hal (Henry V) is sort of sowing his wild oats, being a bad boy."
The Prince Hal of "Idaho" is Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), who confounds his father and Portland, Oregon mayor Jack Favor (Tom Troupe), by living on the city's streets with a gang of homeless kids, including fellow hustler Mike Waters (River Phoenix), the film's analog to Hal's friend Ned Poins. The arc of Scott's story follows Hal's in the "Henry IV" plays and "Henry V": he lives a wild life but confesses that his hustling is designed to make his return to his father — and his inheritance — seem more impressive. Where the film deviates from Shakespeare is in Poins: the character disappears in "Henry IV, Part 2," but Mike's path is the other major storyline in "Idaho."
Rosaline and Romeo and Juliet
20th Century Studios/Hulu
The character of Rosaline is such a minor part of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" that she actually doesn't even appear in the stage production. She's mentioned briefly as the object of Romeo's affection and the motivation for him to visit a gathering of her family, the Capulets, in order to catch a glimpse of her. However, Romeo instead spots Juliet, and as far as the play goes, thus endeth Rosaline.
Some filmmakers have included her as a minor role in feature adaptations, and at least two plays based on "Romeo" have featured Rosaline as a supporting or main character in stories that take place after the action in the Shakespeare play. However, the 2022 comedy "Rosaline" not only puts her front and center but also takes place concurrently with Romeo and Juliet's story.
Based on the novel by Rebecca Searle, "Rosaline" takes the "Maleficent" tack by shifting the perspective of a well-known story to that of a secondary character. Here, Rosaline is a smart young Renaissance woman whose secret romance with Romeo (Kyle Allen) is torpedoed by her cousin, Juliet (Isabella Merced), and who sets out to break up their star-crossed connection before she herself is married off to the wealthy and handsome Dario (a new character played by Sean Terle). "Rosaline" runs concurrently with the storyline of "Romeo and Juliet," allowing its heroine to duck in and out of the play's action while also following her own amusing path to independence and romance on her own terms.
Mary Reilly and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has been adapted to film and television (among other mediums) numerous times; there have been more than 100 screen versions of the story, with the doctor and his monstrous alter ego played by (among others), Fredric March, Boris Karloff, Russell Crowe, and David Hasselhoff (really). Most screen versions follow the text's basic plot, in which the saintly Jekyll creates a serum that transformed him into the morally corrupt Hyde, but finds it difficult to return to normal after each subsequent metamorphosis.
Most screen versions also place Jekyll at the center of the action, but 1996's "Mary Reilly" is seen from the perspective of Jekyll's maid (Julia Roberts), a relatively minor character in the novella. Drawing upon the novel of the same name by Valerie Martin, the film attracted a high-profile cast and crew — Julia Roberts as Mary and John Malkovich as Jekyll/Hyde, with Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton serving as director and writer, respectively — that labored mightily to refashion Stevenson's story as a Gothic romance.
That reluctance to emphasize the horror of its central idea — a man who finds an outlet for his baser instincts but finds himself unable to rein them in — hobbled the movie, which was already struggling due to conflicts between the studio, which wanted a happier ending, and Frears, who offered an ambiguous finale. The film was a dismal failure, earning just $12 million worldwide on a budget of $40 million.
Brightburn and Superman
Sony Pictures Entertainment
The James Gunn-produced horror film "Brightburn" tells the story of a childless small-town couple (Elizabeth Banks and David Denham) who discover the wreck of an alien craft containing a baby. They raise the child as their own and as he grows into adolescence, learn that he possesses unusual powers: the ability to fly, extraordinary strength, and imperviousness to injury or illness. If that premise sounds familiar to you, that's deliberate. Though never explicitly referenced in the script by Gunn's brother and cousin (respectively) Brian and Mark, or by director David Yarovesky, "Brightburn" echoes the origin story of Superman if the Man of Steel hailed from Earth-Three, DC Comics' alternate world that housed an array of villainous counterparts to the company's stable of heroes.
The Superman saga really begins with the adult Clark Kent heeding his foster parents' advice to hide away his powers behind a "mild-mannered" persona and use them only to help those in need. "Brightburn" ends with the alien child giving a full display of his destructive capabilities by murdering his parents, knocking a jetliner out of the sky, and flattening a building with its occupants still inside. Both properties advance the idea that their respective super entities will have a tremendous impact on humanity: Superman as its defender and Brightburn, as the boy comes to be known, as its destroyer.
Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers
Warner Bros. Pictures
Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning 2006 feature "Letters from Iwo Jima" is something of a rarity in that it is both a companion piece to his World War II drama "Flags of Our Fathers" and also presents the opposite side of the conflict by depicting the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the occupying Japanese forces, just as "Flags" looks at the American campaign. There is almost no crossover between the two films, save for a brief shot borrowed from "Flags" that features actor Alessandro Mastrobuono as Marine Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, a member of the platoon that famously raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. Both films detail the incredible struggles faced on the battlefield and the homefronts by both armies during that decisive battle in the Pacific Theater, though from very different viewpoints.
Several previous standalone films have also explored both sides of the conflict in World War II through fully realized characters, including 1970's "Tora! Tora! Tora!" which employed both American (Richard Fleischer) and Japanese (Kinji Fukusaku, Toshio Masuda, and an uncredited Akira Kurosawa) filmmakers to depict the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Randall Wallace's 2002 drama "We Were Soldiers," with Mel Gibson, also earned critical praise for its even-handed depiction of American and North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.
The Last House on the Left and The Virgin Spring
Criterion Collection/Janus Films
One of the most harrowing horror titles of the 1970s, Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left" became one of the genre's most controversial films due to its graphic violence. Though Craven intended his debut film as a response to both the depiction of violence in movies and the real-life turmoil caused by the Vietnam War, "Last House" was also inspired bydirector Ingmar Bergman'sOscar-winning 1961 film "The Virgin Spring."
"Spring" was itself inspired by a medieval Swedish ballad about a father who kills the bandits that murdered his daughters, only to discover that they were his long-missing sons. In the film, Bergman's frequent collaborator, Max von Sydow, played the medieval landowner whose daughter is assaulted and murdered by three shepherds. The trio later end up at von Sydow's home, unaware that he is their victim's father; when their crime is revealed, von Sydow slaughters them. In "Last House," a quartet of psychotic criminals waylays and kills two young girls before taking shelter with the parents of one of the girls, who kill them in brutal ways.
The setting and the level of violence separate the two films, as does a scene in which Von Sydow struggles to understand how God could have allowed his daughter to die, but finds renewed faith in the spring that appears where she is found. There is no search for atonement in "Last House."
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
Assault on Precinct 13 and Rio Bravo
The CKK Corporation
"I got into this business wanting to make Westerns," JohnCarpenter said in 1996 (via IGN), adding, "And that hasn't worked out." But Carpenter has managed to fold his affection for the genre into many of his feature films: Snake Plissken, anti-hero of "Escape from New York" and "Escape from L.A.," is a futuristic analog to Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, and "Vampires" certainly references Westerns with its desert setting and a posse of monster hunters.
One of Carpenter's earliest features also directly echoes a classic Hollywood Western. "Assault on Precinct 13" was fashioned after "Rio Bravo," a 1959 Western by one of Carpenter's filmmaking idols, Howard Hawks. Both films concern a gang of outlaws who intend to free one of their confederates held by a small but determined cadre of lawmen. In "Rio Bravo," sheriff John Wayne, an alcoholic deputy (Dean Martin), and a youthful gunslinger (singer Ricky Nelson) hold off gunmen sent by a landowner to free his son. In "Assault," only a highway patrol officer (Austin Stoker), a secretary (Laurie Zimmer), and a convict (Darwin Joston) hold off the Street Thunder gang's siege on a decommissioned police precinct.
There's no cooperative criminal in the Hawks film and no romance like that of Wayne and Angie Dickinson in Carpenter's movie. But the plot beats are essentially the same, right down to similarly explosive finales. Carpenter also sows in numerous references to Hawks: Zimmer's character shares a name with "Bravo" scripter Leigh Brackett, and he adopted Wayne's character's name (John T. Chance) for his pseudonym as the film's editor.
The Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre
New Line Cinema
Bertha Mason is a supporting character in Charlotte Bronte's novel "Jane Eyre" and its numerous film adaptations, as well as a serious threat to the romance between Jane and her employer, the brooding Edward Rochester. Mason was Rochester's first wife, a notable beauty with a fiery temper that eventually drives her to insanity and forces Rochester to lock her in the attic. Rochester can't divorce her due to her mental illness, but also can't marry Jane, no matter how often Bertha breaks out of her confinement, sets fire to Thornfield Hall, and tries to kill him. However, she solves the issue by throwing herself off a roof, which conveniently allows Jane and Rochester to tie the knot.
The 1966 novel "The Wide Sargasso Sea" retells "Jane Eyre" from two perspectives: Bertha, who is named Antoinette Cosway in the text, and Rochester. The book and the 1993 Australian film adaptation by John Duigan (the first of several feature and TV versions) posit the idea that her marriage to Rochester is a sham, engineered by the greed of their respective families; once their union is set, Rochester locks her away due to her gender biracial status, which leads to her madness and all it produces. The 1993 "Sargasso Sea" strips away the perspectives in the novel, but clearly sympathizes with Antoinette's tragic fate.
Snow White and the Huntsman and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
"Snow White and the Huntsman" puts an action-oriented spin on the venerable Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Though it follows the major plot points of the story, "Huntsman" definitely attempts to refashion "Snow White" as both a dark fantasy-adventure and a female empowerment parable.
Kristen Stewart's Snow White is anything but the passive princess of the Grimms' story or the 1937 Disney animated film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." She's far more determined than her counterparts and fights Charlize Theron's evil Queen herself, rather than letting the dwarfs or handsome prince William (Sam Claflin) handle the dirty work. The Queen also gets a grisly upgrade: her desire to be the fairest in the land leads her to drain the youth from the young women in her kingdom to preserve her looks.
Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman is a far larger role than in the story or previous adaptations, which shuffle him offstage after failing to kill Snow White. He gains motivation — the Queen promises to revive his late wife in exchange for capturing Snow White — and teams with the dwarfs to lead the attack on the Queen's castle. It's the Huntsman that revives Snow White with a kiss after she's poisoned by the Queen. These elements lend some depth to the proceedings and help separate the film from many of its more fanciful predecessors. Beyond them, though, "Huntsman" hits all the major beats of the original story.
Beauty and the Beast (1946/78) and Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Filmove studio Barrandov
"Beauty and the Beast" has been adapted to film on many occasions, though few are as well-known to mass audiences as Disney's 1991 animated version. It and most other adaptations hinge on two well-worn maxims — "true love conquers all" and "looks can be deceiving" — and focus on the relationship between Beauty and the monstrous Beast as it shifts from terror to affection. However, two previous film versions take a very different approach to the material.
A 1946 French adaptation by filmmaker Jean Cocteau was perhaps the best-known version prior to the Disney feature; it was nominated for the Grand Prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and has been cited as an influence on countless fantasy films. It is definitely not a children's film: Cocteau uses surreal imagery to depict the Beast's castle, such as candelabra held by human arms and mirrors that become pools of water. Most importantly, Cocteau seems to favor the feline Beast over his princely form (both played by Jean Marais) suggesting that as a Beast, he's more sympathetic and deserving of love.
A 1978 Czech version, "Panna a nevtor" ("The Virgin and the Monster") leans harder on horrific elements. The Beast here has the sharp beak and claws of a bird of prey and is plagued by voices that urge him to kill his captive Beauty. Its castle is a pure Gothic nightmare, full of dead vegetation, mud, and ghoulish servants. Director Juraj Herz offers a happy ending but depicts it as a silly, childish daydream.
Clueless and Emma
Though Jane Austen's 1815 novel "Emma" has been adapted for the screen on several occasions — no less than nine times for television and four times as a feature film, including a 2020 version with Anya Taylor-Joy — the most popular and well-known version is actually a loose read of the source material set in modern times. That would be Amy Heckerling's "Clueless," which moves the action from Victorian England to Beverly Hills circa 1999; surprisingly, Austen's pointed observations about the rigid social and romantic rules of her period translate well to the complex codes of high school and upper-middle-class life in Southern California.
There's another "Emma" adaptation that takes place in a world even further away than Beverly Hills. The 2010 Hindi-language comedy "Aisha" is set in modern-day Delhi, India, and borrows its plot and buoyant tone from both "Emma" and "Clueless." The Cher/Emma analog here is Sonam Kapoor's flighty but well-intentioned Aisha, who is so invested in her pet matchmaking project for friend Shefali (Amrita Puri) that she fails to see her own chance at love in contentious but cute neighbor Arjun (Abhay Deol).
Cruel Intentions and Dangerous Liaisons
The cunning-but-vicious mind games and steamy trysts found in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 18th-century novel "Les Liaisons dangereuses" ("Dangerous Liaisons") have made it prime material for adaptation into a number of different media, including no fewer than eight film adaptations. The best-known of these is undoubtedly Stephen Frears' 1988 version, with Glenn Close and John Malkovich as the French royals who plot to seduce and ruin a pair of apparent innocents (Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman) for their own spiteful pleasure.
Like "Dangerous Liaisons," most versions stick close to the historical setting and time period, though a few move the action to different locations and centuries. Roger Vadim's 1959 film "Les Liaisons dangereuses" takes place in then-modern-day France, while 2003's "Untold Scandal" is set in 18th-century Korea.The most radical adaptation is most likely 1999's "Cruel Intentions," which stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe as wealthy, venal stepsiblings who toy with others' emotions for their amusement; Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair are their intended victims.
"Intentions" follows de Laclos' plot in inventive ways — the book's epistolary structure is echoed through frequent shots of emails and texts between the pair — but adds an extra ick factor by making the schemers relatives (by marriage) with a serious case of the hots for each other. A prequel, "Cruel Intentions 2," and a sequel, "Cruel Intentions 3" — neither with the original cast – were released direct-to-video in 2001 and 2004, respectively, while a 2016 TV reboot failed to materialize.
Beowulf (2007) and various adaptations
The animated film "Beowulf" attempted to bring the ancient, epic poem of the same name, reportedly penned in the 11th century, to 21st-centuryaudiences via motion capture animation. Adapting its 3,000 lines of alliterative poetry was tasked to "Sandman" creator Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary, who, with director Robert Zemeckis, refashioned it as a sexy, gory horror-adventure. Their approach followed the original text, unlike 1999's "Beowulf," which was set in the future, or European productions like "Beowulf and Grendel," which focused only on part of the poem.
The original "Beowulf" text hinges on Beowulf's fights with three monsters: the man-eating Grendel, his mother, and a dragon. Beowulf (voiced by Ray Winstone) meets them in the Zemeckis movie, though their encounters play out differently than in the text: Grendel, typically portrayed as a troll-like creature, is instead a deformed humanoid (voiced by Crispin Glover). Grendel's mother also gets a makeover, transforming from a hag or sea monster into the shimmering, unclad form of Angelina Jolie.
The dragon is impressive-looking, but it too is a deviation: it's the product of Grendel's mother's seduction of Beowulf and underscores the chief difference in the film. Gaiman and Avary's script attempts to update the material with 21st-century character details: Beowulf is a lusty, boastful bully, Danish king Hrothgar (voiced by Anthony Hopkins) is Grendel's secret father, and Grendel's mother is allowed to live in order to continue her monster bloodline (and set up a sequel). These touches didn't help bring "Beowulf" to modern audiences: the film grossed just $196 million on a $150 million budget.