William Shakespeare, perhaps surprisingly, was a literary thief. So were novelists James Joyce and Mark Twain. With a rise in the popularity of movies during the 20th century, film directors and screenwriters also are borrowing examples from literature to create their movies’ plots and characters.
Though each artist uses different mediums to transport their ultimate goal, the two types of craftsmen utilize similar techniques.
Writers and film directors seem to quietly revert, both consciously and subconsciously, to a simple phrase when conjuring up enticing plots and subplots, emotionally and psychologically complex characters and symbolic settings: larceny is genius.
Movie directors may borrow certain elements from famous pieces of literature to strengthen their respective works. While many film plots seem completely unique or innovative, such as The Matrix trilogy, movie buffs may be surprised at how many films subtly steal significant literary or philosophical texts. One of the most successful film trilogies in history employs ideas from one of the most well-known philosophy books in history. The Matrix directors, the Wachowski brothers, created a seemingly innovative story about a man given a chance to view the authentic, yet sobering, reality humanity is kept from seeing. This story strikingly resembles one of ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s most memorable allegories.
In The Matrix, the protagonist Neo represents the epitome of the late 20th century generation man. He receives an opportunity to take a pill and become plugged into the true reality, rather than the dream-like world humans populate. From this moment on, Neo experiences a clear-cut dichotomy of light versus dark, perception versus reality and good verses bad. Similarly, in his famous dialogue The Republic, Plato uses a cave allegory to illustrate a similar point on the difference between the shadows of perception and the light of truth and reality. Like Neo in The Matrix, Plato’s metaphorical character must push through the initially blinding and confusing reality. The Matrix also contains a multitude of biblical plots and characters, such as the crucifixion of Neo as the Savior, the concepts of prophet and the John the Baptist recreation Morpheus.
Artistic thievery, however, is not solely for the films of the creativity-deprived late 1990s. One of the most popular and entertaining musicals of all time derives its plot from one of the most widely read and performed plays in English literature. In 1961, West Side Story took the movie industry by storm and claimed itself the most acclaimed motion picture of [its] time. The story of two star-crossed lovers from opposing New York City gangs won ten Oscars and its lives on in high school auditoriums and stereos across the country. The writers of West Side Story, however, had a plot framework from the late 16th century in mind, nearly guaranteeing the most acclaimed motion picture of their time.
In early years of his career, William Shakespeare wrote a drama people continue to romantically quote. The Westside Story creators used the dramatic demigod’s hit play Rome and Juliet as the blueprints for their modernized version. By changing the setting and the backgrounds of the character, screenwriters Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents created a modern day Romeo and Juliet in their characters Maria and Tony.
Ironically, though, even Shakespeare dabbled in the larceny is genius philosophy, for he twisted many of his plots from other authors’ works. Some scholars contend Shakespeare spun Romeo and Juliet from Tristan and Isolde, a romance from the Middle Ages. A Hollywood remake of this play recently was released in theatres. Other movies masking themselves as new ideas include the teen-marketed 10 Things I Hate About You (Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew ) and She’s All That (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which also inspired the adaptors of My Fair Lady ).
There are films deliberately and directly adapted from books. Movies such as Lord of the Rings, though abridged for time concerns, keep the same basic plotlines and major characters. Other popular adaptations include Pride and Prejudice and the Harry Potter series. Criticism can justifiably arrive when directors and screenwriters begin to change point of views or personal philosophies take shape in the film, as in Mel Gibson purportedly did in The Passion of the Christ.
The book-to-movie adaptations, whether subtle or explicit, flood the aisles of video stores and attract viewer’s attention with their advertisements in the entertainment sections. Before you visit your local movie theatre, dust off the classic pieces of literature sitting ornamentally on the bookshelf in your living room. You can play detective and investigate the infinite amount of literary crimes in Hollywood.