14 Popular Movies That Are Actually Based On Classic Literature You Forgot To Read In School

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Vote up the best movies that gave old material a modern makeover.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who enjoy reading the classics for extra credit, and those who always reach for the CliffsNotes. Luckily for the second type, since coming into vogue the film medium has been selling out theaters with adaptations of classic literature. These movies were lit! Classic lit, that is.

Here's the problem, though. There are only so many well-known classic books whose stories lend themselves to the big screen. You know what they say, there are no new ideas. But a tweak here and a tweak there, a fresh coat of paint, and old concepts can be passed off as new. Just like this introduction paraphrasing Mark Twain's quote here (much less eloquently, of course). If Twain is to be believed, however, we should be a lot more forgiving of all the "gritty" reboots released every year. 

The following movies are based on classic books (officially or unofficially), where the premise has been changed just enough that they're not wholly recognizable - but certainly will be to those who know what to look for. Once you know these popular movies were actually based on the books you pretended to read back in high school, feel free to be that insufferable type who tells everyone how much better the book was than the movie.

Remember to vote up the best movies that - whether you realized it or not at the time - were based on classic lit.

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  • Hamlet-to-The Lion King may be a loose adaptation, but there are far too many similarities for it to be a coincidence. Simba's/Hamlet's dad is slain by his brother Scar/Claudius, who usurps the throne. The late king's ghost visits the young prince and sets him on the path for revenge. Comic relief is provided by the prince's two best friends - Timon & Pumbaa in the animated classic, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in Shakespeare's classic.

    Needless to say, notable differences exist between the two; for one thing, everyone doesn't die at the end of The Lion King. It is a children's cartoon, after all. Nala doesn't drown herself like Ophelia did, and Simba doesn't kill her father, as Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius.

    Of course, as The Lion King theories go, drawing inspiration from Hamlet may not be the one that's most out there.

    65 votes

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  • Peppering everyday conversation with choice quotes from the Bard's extensive repertoire is what theater kids excel at. Which makes 10 Things I Hate About You the perfect movie for those inclined toward the dramatic arts. Then again, in 1999 this contemporary high school rom-com was briefly everyone's movie, even though many may not have realized it was based on a Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew.

    Set in Padua, Italy, the play introduces us to Katerina and Bianca, two sisters who are polar opposites in temperament. Bianca is a sweet, young thing that's eager to please, while Katerina is headstrong and disagreeable. In the movie, Julia Stiles plays the role of Kat to perfection. She's not mean, she's just over the high school boys' nonsense. The girls' dad does what any unreasonable parent would do: He refuses to let Bianca get married - or date - until Kat does, too. The two men interested in courting Bianca decide to bribe Patrick (Petruchio in the play) to date Kat. He takes her out just to win the bet, but ends up falling in love with her. She finds out about the bet and is understandably hurt, and then we get that incredibly sweet moment that gives the film its title.

    The major difference between the play and the movie is the latter doesn't try to "tame" Kat; in fact, Patrick falls in love with her for the very traits that make her unique and independent.

    75 votes

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  • So many adaptations of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol exist that the name "Scrooge" has become synonymous with any miserly, tight-fisted, penny-pinching cheapskate. Scrooged is a modernized version of the old Christmas classic, with Bill Murray as Frank Cross, the president of a television network. There are some differences, but the broad strokes are the same.

    Frank makes his staff work through the holiday, creating a live production of A Christmas Carol to air on Christmas Day. Being the Scrooge that he is, he decides not to hand out bonuses, giving all his hardworking employees monogrammed towels instead. Before the big night, Frank's late mentor's ghost makes an appearance, warning him of the ghosts to come. Frank assumes he's just overworked and doesn't pay any heed to the warning.

    The Ghost of Christmas Past is a taxi driver who takes him to his childhood home to rediscover his love of television. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a ditzy fairy who takes him to visit his assistant Grace's home. Her financial situation is dire and her son, Calvin - a stand-in for the novel's Tiny Tim - has not spoken since he witnessed his father being slain. The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Frank his funeral, where his brother and his wife are the only people in attendance. In this future, Calvin's condition has deteriorated to the point of catatonia.

    Frank returns to the present a changed man. He apologizes to his assistant and brother on-air and makes an impassioned speech about the importance of helping one another. The movie ends with Calvin joyously delivering Tiny Tim's famous line, "God bless us, everyone!"

    62 votes

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  • In 1995, the world fell in love with Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Cher was the rich, beautiful, well-meaning but utterly... well, clueless heroine, bumbling through life, often overestimating her capabilities and prowess. Director Amy Heckerling has other cult classics under her (presumably designer) belt - Fast Times at Ridgemont High comes to mind - but Clueless introduced her work to a whole new generation: '90s kids. It was a massive hit that left an indelible impression on the fashion scene and '90s vernacular. The "Valley girl" speak had been around for more than a decade - ever since Frank Zappa wrote his song Valley Girl - but Clueless made some choice additions to the vocabulary and made it more mainstream.

    Heckerling drew inspiration for Clueless from Jane Austen's novel Emma. The writer/director acknowledged the source of her inspiration - but the signs were all there already. The two respective leads, Emma and Cher, are both rich, spoilt, and bored. They both live with their doting fathers; they both try to play Cupid with disastrous results. Tai is to Cher what Harriet is to Emma, a pet project whose love life she decides to meddle in. Josh is obviously Mr. Knightley, a brother-like family acquaintance who eventually turns into a romantic interest.

    Elton is Elton - the name wasn't even changed with this one. Cher/Emma - completely "clueless" to Elton's true feelings for her - tries to set him up with Tai/Harriet. Christian, like Frank Churchill, was someone who piqued Cher's/Emma's interest but is ultimately ill-suited to our heroine; in the movie, it's because he's gay, while in the novel, he was simply betrothed to someone else. Travis, like Martin in the novel, was perfect for Tai/Harriet. Cher/Emma tries to change the course of destiny, deciding he simply isn't good enough, but the heart wants what it wants.

    43 votes

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  • First and foremost, The Dark Knight Rises is a Batman movie, and thus its most important source material is the decades' worth of canonized material involving Bruce Wayne's legendary alter ego, the rogues' gallery he perpetually contends with, and the city he's bound to protect. But for Christopher Nolan's epic-length capper to his Dark Knight trilogy, the filmmaker went even deeper into the annals of Western literature for inspiration.

    The film that picks things up nearly a decade after the events of its previous installment proceeds to give us a Gotham City in the waning days (unbeknownst to its upper class) of a season of Light and entering a season of Darkness. Which is to say, the downfall of Gotham and the burgeoning class uprising therein was modeled on none other than Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, the 1859 classic that revolves around the French Revolution. Co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, the director's brother, recalled the inception of the script's ideas in 2008 and explained the Dickensian influence:

    All of these films have threatened to turn Gotham inside out and to collapse it on itself. None of them have actually achieved that until this film. A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portrait of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It's hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.

    Leaving aside any similarities, incidental or otherwise, between the two stories' centrally important prisons - the Bastille in Dickens's novel, "The Pit" in Nolan's film - The Dark Knight Rises establishes a booming modern metropolis that implodes as a result of its own greed and corruption. After the fall of Gotham - a series of controlled explosions cut it off entirely from the rest of the world, as its people face the looming threat of annihilation - comes a lawless absurdity, with its kangaroo courts (i.e., Scarecrow perched atop a towering, makeshift bench in the former halls of justice, a surreal image that would hardly be out of place in Orson Welles's The Trial) and public executions ("Death or exile?") drawing a clear parallel to the Reign of Terror.

    The character specifics are quite distinct between the two titles, for the most part - on one hand, the mass prisoner release and the rest of Bane's handiwork echoes the Storming of the Bastille; on the other, no rich man dressed as a crime-fighting bat stepped in to save the day - but Nolan found other inspirations within Dickens's novel that helped him finesse the ideas and resolution of his comic book finale:

    What Dickens does in that book in terms of having all his characters come together in one unified story with all these thematic elements and all this great emotionalism and drama, it was exactly the tone we were looking for.

    41 votes
  • Much like a lot of Greek mythology and philosophy, Homer's Odyssey and Iliad have seeped into our bones. Though scholars and historians are uncertain if Homer was the author of these epic poems, or if he even existed at all, it doesn't take anything away from the genius of the tales. Countless attempts were made at a retelling of The Odyssey, as everyone from Stanley Kubrick to The Simpsons has put their own spin on an age-old tale. 

    Not to be outdone, the Coen Brothers brought us O Brother, Where Art Thou? Though the name comes from Preston Sturges's 1941 classic Sullivan's Travels, the opening credits mention The Odyssey as a source of inspiration, quoting a line from the epic poem:

    Sing to me O Muse...

    The poem is a sequel to the Iliad, charting the course of Odysseus's journey and the perils he faces along the way as he tries to make it home to his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus. Our hero is Ulysses (Roman translation of Odysseus) Everett McGill, in southern Georgia, in the '30s. He's part of a chain gang with two other prisoners. Their epic journey is about escaping incarceration and finding buried treasure. Everett also wants to make it home to his wife, Penny. And just as in the poem, presuming he is out of the picture, all the town's "eligible" men are trying to court Penny. Along the way, the boys record a great folk song, "Man of Constant Sorrow," of which there have been several versions over the years, including one by Bob Dylan.

    References to the poem abound throughout the movie: Our heroes encounter a blind man who prophesies about things to come, just as Tiresias the soothsayer did in the poem. Odysseus's entrance to the underworld in the poem is depicted through the Ku Klux Klan, with their torches and vile ceremonies. The singing women near the river are a reference to the Sirens in the poem, and Big Dan Teague, with his eye patch, is a stand-in for Cyclops Polyphemus.

    66 votes

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