13 Movies Inspired By Works Of Art
Movies inspired by paintings extract the most iconic qualities of their source material and transform them into something more modern and altogether unique. An ancient, towering god becomes a giant robot in Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim. A biblical scene is updated for 1970s New York City bar culture in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. While some directors rely on the style and moods evoked by certain artists, others make movies based on paintings that focus on a specific piece of art to shape everything from set design to costuming to narrative developments.
Whether it's an animated Disney flick geared toward children, an iconic horror feature that borders on exploitation, or a biopic about a well-known artist, movies inspired by paintings or other pictorial works are as plentiful and diverse as the world of visual art itself.
- Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Parufamet
From a visual standpoint, Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film Metropolis remains among the vanguard of the sci-fi genre. The sets, architecture, and effects in the film have been touchstones time and again in more modern features from Blade Runner to The Matrix. The film follows a dystopian plot as workers in a futuristic city rise up against the ruling class that forces them to live and work underground. A woman named Maria serves as the leader of the subterranean laborers. At one point, Maria invokes the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for the tensions between those in power and those in servitude.
The Tower of Babel is an ongoing theme in the film, and much of Metropolis's imagery is derived from Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Tower of Babel painting, an oil work completed around 1563. The importance of Bruegel's painting is seen across the film, from the skyscrapers that mark the city above to the visions that keep workers hopeful below.
- Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Warner Bros. Pictures
A Clockwork Orange is a frenetic and nightmarish 1971 film based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess. Malcolm McDowell plays a ruthless teen who serves jail time after mercilessly attacking a man and his wife. McDowell's character Alex is exposed to an experimental therapy that is supposed to cure him of his impulses, but the treatment backfires in horrific ways.
While Alex is incarcerated, the camera cuts to the prison yard, where the inmates are "exercised" by walking around in circles. The drab fortress, high walls, and tight quarters depicted in the scene are inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's 1890 painting Prisoners Exercising, which shows a group of male inmates engaged in the same activity. Drawing from the painting's influence, director Stanley Kubrick reinforces his dehumanizing portrait of the criminal justice system.
- Photo: Wikimedia Commons / DreamWorks Pictures
Known for epic cinematic visions, it's no surprise Ridley Scott could take inspiration from a classical painting and turn it into 2000's Gladiator. While chatting with The Hollywood Reporter, producer Douglas Wick recalled the moment when Scott first glimpsed Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme:
And we brought Ridley a painting from the late 1800s of the Roman Colosseum. It was beautifully shaded, and because it was sort of in the blush of the British Empire, it was slightly idealized. Ridley looked at the painting and said, "I’ll do the movie. Wherever the script is, we’ll get it right. I’m doing this movie."
Gérôme's work shows a defeated gladiator raising two fingers for help while spectators in the emperor's box give him the thumbs down, meaning he will not be spared. Gladiator includes a direct homage to Pollice Verso in the tense scenes where Joaquin Phoenix's character Commodus holds out a raised thumb to determine the fates of gladiators in the arena like Maximus, played by Russell Crowe.
- Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Warner Bros. Pictures
Noir vibes blend with apocalyptic humanoids in Ridley Scott's 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, a film whose damp, dark, post-modern elegance is forever indebted to American painter Edward Hopper's 1942 Nighthawks. In Nighthawks, late-night patrons sit around the counter at a downtown diner, where viewers peer in through the restaurant's large glass window. Beyond the diner, what awaits is an undefined, possibly desolate urban landscape.
Scott isn't shy about how much he loves Nighthawks. As he once shared:
I was constantly waving a reproduction of this painting under the noses of the Blade Runner production team to illustrate the look and mood I was after.
Scott achieves this look and then some in Blade Runner, set in an alternate 2019 Los Angeles caked in fog, pollution, and rain. Characters move from illuminated diners to dusky city streets to compact apartments. Isolation and loneliness are major themes in Blade Runner, just as they are in Hopper's painting.
- Photo: Wikimedia Commons / New Line Cinema
Leave it to dark comedy director Alexander Payne to reference a morbid 18th-century French painting in one of his films. This is the case for 2002's About Schmidt, which stars Jack Nicholson as a retired widower wrapped up in malaise, indifference, and existential dread.
When Nicholson's character Warren falls asleep in the bath while writing a letter, Payne recreates Jacques-Louis David's 1793 painting The Death of Marat. Considered one of the most emblematic paintings of the French Revolution, David's work dramatizes the demise of revolutionary journalist Jean-Paul Marat, who was dispatched by a woman named Charlotte Corday while soaking in a tub. The painting's bleak, macabre message is totally in line with Payne's film, which characterizes Warren as an eternal cynic who garners little joy from life.
- Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Paramount Pictures
The creaky and creepy Bates family home is the centerpiece of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 proto-slasher Psycho, and its dilapidated appearance symbolizes the decline of the family occupying it. Hitchcock didn't conceive of this domicile on his own, though; in fact, Hitchcock relied on a painting by American artist Edward Hopper to build and design his cinematic house of terror.
Hopper's 1925 work House by the Railroad portrays a real Gothic farmhouse in Haverstraw, NY, which is still intact to this day. In the painting, the solitary three-story home evokes a threadbare and squalid atmosphere - the same atmosphere that permeates both the Bates mansion and its adjacent Bates Motel in Psycho. A better backdrop couldn't exist for a film that follows the tormented Norman Bates, played brilliantly by Anthony Perkins, as he makes moves on his latest victim.