Although I would never advocate watching movies over reading, there are a number of entertaining and popular films out there that are inspired by or based on poetry. As Orson Welles famously noted, “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” Shall we see if these films stand up to the test?
With a “Netflix and Chill” state of mind, here are 8 poetry-inspired movies to watch on your next movie night.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by David Benioff, Troy is an action-adventure film adaptation of Homer’s Iliad. With Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector, Troy received mixed reviews following its release. Many critics slammed the film for not being faithful to Homer’s original epic poem, some even calling the film a “watered down” version of the classic.
I was thrilled to learn the origin story of one of my favorite Disney classics. Based on the ancient Chinese poem “Ballad of Mulan,” the film and poem tell the story of Hua Mulan, a young woman who takes her elderly father’s place in the army during the Northern Wei Dynasty. The poem was composed during the fifth or sixth century CE, during a time when China was divided. Check out the original poem here.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are movie-making gold in my book. In 2000, they released a comedy about a trio of convicts trying to escape a Mississippi chain gang, only to inevitably stumble into a series of misfortunes.
With George Clooney playing Ulysses Everett McGill, O Brother, Where Art Thou? took ancient Greek poet Homer’s episodic structure of The Odyssey and married it with absurd comedy, set in 1937 rural Mississippi, complete with old-timey bluegrass music from T-Bone Burnett.
Fun Fact: The Coens didn’t even read the epic poem while making the movie. Reportedly, actor Tim Blake Nelson was the only person on set who was familiar with Homer’s work, as he holds a degree in Classics from Brown University.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This beloved stop-motion, fantasy musical film actually began as a poem. 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.”
Inspired by 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,” Burton created a spooky version of Christmas. Although he pitched the idea to Disney in 1982, the project wasn’t completed until Burton produced it himself as a feature film in 1993. Now, it is the cult classic we all know and love.
Bright Star (2009)
Bright Star focuses on the final three years of poet John Keats’ life (played by Ben Whishaw) and his love affair with a young socialite named Fanny Brawne (played by Abbie Cornish). Based on the poem “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art,” the film premiered at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, with some critics dubbing it Jane Campion’s best work since 1993’s The Piano. With stunning scenery and beautiful costume design, this “swoon-worthy” film is a must-see for poetry lovers.
Mel Gibson’s Braveheart was based on a 15th-century Scottish epic poem titled “The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.” If that’s too much of a mouthful, it’s also simply called “The Wallace.”
After the love of his life is slaughtered, William Wallace, the medieval Scottish patriot, revolts against the English. Leading his army into battles that become a war, his advance into England threatens King Edward I’s throne before he is captured and executed, but not before becoming a symbol for a free Scotland.
While the film received heavy criticism for being historically inaccurate, Braveheart still went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, in 1996.
The Dead Poet Society (1989)
Legend Robin Williams stars in this adored film as an English teacher named John Keating at an all-boys prep school on the East Coast. Keating inspires his students, teaches them life lessons, and helps them discover a love of poetry.
The film features poems from the likes of Robert Frost to William Shakespeare. Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” is at the heart of it all and included in probably the most popular scene of the movie. Proving just how much they adore their teacher, Keating’s students recite this poem in solidarity when Keating is banished from the school. Check out that scene in the clip below.
James Franco has his hand in another literature-inspired movie (see his role in the film adaption of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner) but this time as American Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg.
Howl follows Ginsberg’s life as he was writing the poem “Howl”—how it was composed, how the public reacted to it, and how it was the center of an obscenity trial in 1957 at the start of the Beat Generation. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman structured the intriguing 2010 film as if it were a poem.