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

Updated June 21, 2021 284 votes 38 voters 1.1k views14 items

List RulesVote 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.

  • 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.

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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.

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  • It may seem kind of tame by today's standards, but back when it came out in 1999, Cruel Intentions was pretty risqué - sex scenes, strong language, stepsiblings making bets to sleep with each other, you name it. Small wonder, then, that the movie was adapted from the French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It was written in 1782, the French Revolution still a twinkle in the eye of the peasants, sick of the aristocracy. Perhaps this is why the protagonists in the novel were nobles, titles and all.

    Names were changed for the movie; they're still rich, upper-class brats, but instead of the Vicomte de Valmont, it's Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), and instead of the Marquise de Merteuil, it's Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar). In the novel, the two are former lovers, intertwined in jealousy and hatred. Sebastian and Kathryn are stepsiblings, making what transpires all the more cruel, yet titillating. The protagonists retain the broad strokes of the personality the novel sketches: Sebastian is handsome, ruthless, and a renowned womanizer; Kathryn is manipulative and cruel, though she maintains a facade of prim propriety. Her squeaky-clean reputation is of utmost importance to her.

    It would suffice for the novel's heroine to witness the humiliation of her former lover if she wins the bet, but Kathryn wants Sebastian's vintage car, a critique on the materialism of the modern age. The eventual love interest for Sebastian in the novel is Tourvel, a pious lady known for her purity; in the movie, the character is the principal's daughter, Annette Hargrove, a virgin who has decided to save herself for marriage.

    One of the key changes in the story is Sebastian's demise. In the novel, it happens in a duel; in the movie, he is hit by a car as he tries to save Annette, sacrificing his life for hers, the ultimate admission of love. This gives us a somewhat compelling rationale to forgive him. Annette doesn't die of grief, as the novel depicts, but we see her riding off in Sebastian's car. The endings of both the novel and the film depict a ruined Kathryn; her friends abandon her and everyone discovers the truth about her as Annette distributes copies of Sebastian's meticulously kept diary, titled "Cruel Intentions."

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  • "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" is one of the most famous and oft-quoted lines from the Vietnam classic Apocalypse Now. Director Francis Ford Coppola borrowed heavily from Joseph Conrad's short but unsettling novel Heart of Darkness. While the novel is a scathing critique of colonialism and the severe treatment of the Congolese people, the movie lambastes the Vietnam War and the loss of young lives and potential that resulted from it.

    The book delves deeply into the depths of evil and the perversity that corrupts the human soul. Though Kurtz's offenses are left to the reader's imagination, nothing - torture, sexual assault, genocide, starving his workers - seems beyond his capabilities. 

    Captain Willard and his crew are on a boat on their way to retrieve Colonel Kurtz, who has repeatedly defied orders to return from Cambodia. Their boat comes under attack by an unseen enemy, and like in the book, one of his helmsmen, Chief, perishes. Once they reach Kurtz's lair, the scene is similar to what is described in the book, including rebels with their heads on pikes. Both the book and movie treat Kurtz as a malevolent god, a self-created deity who considers everyone beneath him. They perish in a similar way, the immortal words, "The horror... the horror," whispered with his final breath.

    Close to the end, the journalist quotes T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men":

    This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. 

    Eliot was a great fan of Conrad's book; the title of the poem is inspired by one of Conrad's lines. In a fitting "life imitates art" kind of way, the behind-the-scenes accounts confirm Apocalypse Now was nothing less than hell to make.

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