There was a time when Hollywood was just filled with conventional adaptations, ranging from Biblical epics to movies based on classic novels. But in today’s age, there is much scope for creativity and reinterpretation. Just look at this year’s Hulu hit Fire Island, a modern adaptation of Janes Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that focuses on a group of gay friends instead of a Victorian high-class family.
Apart from classic authors such as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, the plays of Shakespeare have been a huge hit in such unconventional cinematic takes. And sometimes, if the filmmakers and writers are in the mood to explore more adventurous waters, they can even rely on classical mythology or a scripture like the Bible.
10/10 Fire Island (2022) – Pride And Prejudice
Stream On Hulu
Over the years, the novel Pride and Prejudice has undergone an amusing evolution. There are the usual period-accurate adaptations and then there’s the modern rom-com version (Bridget Jones’s Diary), the Bollywood musical version (Bride and Prejudice), and even one with zombies (Pride and Prejudice vs Zombies).
Fire Island continues this tradition of modern updates on classic literature, focusing on a group of LGBTQ+ friends exploring love and friendship as they go on an annual vacation. The Austen-ian concepts of classism and tough love are explored with Joel Kim Booster’s charismatic protagonist doubling as Elizabeth Bennett, the complicated Conrad Ricamora being Mr. Darcy, and so on.
9/10 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) – The Taming Of The Shrew
Stream On Disney+
One of the Bard’s lesser-known plays, The Taming of the Shrew deals with a particularly rude and mean-spirited one who is then charmed by a suitor who resorts to psychological tricks to impress her and turn her into an “obedient wife.”
Obviously, the sexist undertones of Shakespeare’s Victorian-era play would not translate well for new-age audiences. So, a more apt alternative to the theatrical comedy is 10 Things I Hate About You, a high-school romantic comedy that serves as one of the most unconventional Shakespeare screen adaptations. Julia Stiles plays the part of the Shrew while the late Heath Ledger appears as her charmingly annoying lover. A subplot involving the protagonist’s sister and her own struggles with love spices up things even further.
8/10 O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) – The Odyssey
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Homer’s epic poem Iliad and its particular siege of Troy have been immortalized in several period epics over the years, the Brad Pitt-starrer Troy being the most major example of this century. But the follow-up epic by Homer, the Odyssey, hasn’t been focused on as much.
The narrative chiefly deals with the journey of the king Odysseus as he returns home after the Trojan War. The ordeals that he faces on the way include a Cyclops, sirens, and many other monstrosities. One of the funniest Coen Brothers movies finds the duo adapting this epic with the characters, three 1930s-era prisoners fleeing in the American South, encountering eccentric personalities comparable to the Greek mythology creatures. While O Brother Where Art Thou is a loose adaptation of Odyssey, Joel and Ethan Coen earned themselves an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
7/10 Ad Astra (2019) – Heart Of Darkness
Stream On DIRECTV
Even though writer/director James Gray has not stated explicitly that his space drama Ad Astra is an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, there is a unanimous consensus among critics and audiences that both have thematic similarities, the wilderness of Congo being replaced by the loneliness of deep space.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has been a more direct adaptation with Marlon Brando’s antagonist even retaining the name Kurtz. But this time around, Brad Pitt’s protagonist and Tommy Lee Jones’ ‘Kurtz’ archetype have a deeper connection as they are connected by blood. It is harder for Pitt’s character to survive through thick and thin and then eventually kill the rogue space commander for he is his father. Ad Astra attempts to capture this inner turmoil of the character in a well-disguised (or rather coincidental) take on Conrad’s book.
6/10 Clueless (1995) – Emma
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The recent novel-accurate adaptation of Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy might have attained rave reviews but Clueless continues to hold relevance even years after its release. Much like what 10 Things I Hate About You did with Shakespeare’s play, Clueless does the same with Jane Austen’s Emma.
Much like the other novels that Austen penned, Emma explores the nuances and absurdities of high-class society along with a healthy dose of love triangles. Clueless does the same but with a sassy rom-com approach. While most of the Jane Austen adaptations would be praised for their archaic dresses, Clueless‘s outfits (particularly that of Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash) went on to significantly influence fashion trends of the era.
5/10 Mother! (2017) – The Bible
Stream On Prime Video
Daren Aronofsky isn’t the one to shy away from influences. Scenes from Requiem For A Dream bore influences from anime movies like Perfect Blue. Black Swan drew inspiration from European musical theatre while Noah was pretty much a straightforward adaptation of the Old Testament character’s story.
Then there is Aronofsky’s Mother, a psychological horror that reinterprets major events from the scripture, ranging from the violent conflict between Cain and Abel to the birth of Jesus. Coupled with allusions to nature and environmental destruction, Mother is ultimately a difficult but rewarding (and rather controversial) watch.
4/10 The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017) – Iphigenia In Aulis
Stream On Showtime
Ever since a leading cardiosurgeon befriends a teenage boy, darkness befalls upon his family members all of whom start falling ill one by one. While the title of this psychological thriller seems ominous in the start, it all starts making sense once the audience knows more about the source material.
It turns out that The Killing of the Sacred Deer is an indirect adaptation of the Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides. Colin Farrell’s character is representative of the Greek king Agamemnon who was pushed to such limits to win the Trojan War that he even decided to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigenia to the gods. This concept of familial devotion and sacrifice are fleshed out in a morbidly detailed manner in the Yorgos Lanthimos movie.
3/10 Freeway (1996) – Little Red Riding Hood
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Often counted as one of the best fairy tale adaptations for adults, Freeway takes the common European fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood (versions of which were written by the Grimm Brothers as well as Charles Perrault) and sets it in a disturbingly real world.
Instead of the big bad wolf, Reese Witherspoon’s protagonist is being pursued by a creepy serial killer played by Keifer Sutherland. Along with the lead performances, Freeway is a must-watch for its biting satire and unexpectedly mature take on an otherwise children’s fairy tale. Because of how realistic the movie’s premise is, a harmless fairy tale like this wouldn’t come off as a first thought.
2/10 Scotland, PA (2001) – Macbeth
Stream On Prime Video
Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, is a play worthy of reinterpretations for the universal themes of greed and violence that it touches upon. In the case of Scotland PA, the story deals with the clash between fast food restaurants.
When an unambitious hamburger stand employee (called McBeth out of everything) is drawn to kill his rivals by his scheming wife, a cycle of violence kicks off leading to some fine dark comedy that would make even the Bard proud. The adaptation is so interesting that even the Three Witches are replaced by Three Hippies. Diehard Shakespeare fans might catch the references early on but for laypersons, the adaptation would come off as a darkly pleasant surprise.
1/10 Adaptation (2002) – The Orchid Thief
Stream On HBO Max
Charlie Kaufman’s movies are as meta as they get and Adaptation is a prime example of this. The movie which deals with an extreme case of writer’s block actually sprung out of Kaufman’s own struggles as he attempted to adapt the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans.
As it proved to be a Herculean task, he just ended up writing a meta-narrative of Nicolas Cage playing him with a few scenes cutting into Orleans’ actual writings (with Meryl Streep playing Orleans) and her investigations to reveal illegal smuggling of rare flowers such as orchids. Of course, Kaufman threw a few dramatized elements such as a love angle between her and the poacher but the scenes featuring the ‘unfilmable’ book in the context of the surreal plot makes the viewers puzzle if the movie is indeed an adaptation of the book or not.