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.
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.Impressive inspiration?
Simply put, Guillermo del Toro is obsessed with 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya. One of Goya's masterpieces, The Colossus, inspired the appearance and movements of the behemoth robots and monsters in 2013's Pacific Rim. As del Toro put it to HuffPost:
One of the first images that came to mind is an image that you wouldn’t think would inspire a movie like this. It’s a painting by Francisco Goya called The Colossus. It’s a painting where you see this gigantic figure looming above a very small town.
Just like in Goya's painting, which depicts the biblical figure Goliath contrasted against a minuscule village, Pacific Rim makes viewers feel like ants as they watch creatures that hulk and hover over everything around them. As del Toro described in another interview, by completely disregarding all sense of any "human scale," the film somehow makes audiences feel even smaller than other big-screen action epics.Impressive inspiration?
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.Impressive inspiration?
Martin Scorsese's homage to New York's Little Italy, which stars Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, is modeled in part after an Italian painting that was 370 years old when Mean Streets was produced in 1973: Caravaggio's The Calling of St. Matthew. Caravaggio's painting showcases the moment Jesus called upon Matthew to become one of his followers. Using a dramatic depiction of natural lighting and emphatic gestures, the painting contrasts the sacred and the mundane - something Scorsese also does in Mean Streets by creating tension between the day-to-day lives of the film's characters and their devoutly Catholic beliefs.
In an interview with The Guardian, Scorsese described Mean Streets as "The Calling of St Matthew, but in New York!" He went on to explain just how much Caravaggio influenced the look of the film:
He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It's basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up.Impressive inspiration?