10 Great Movies Based on Poems


We’re all pretty comfortable with the idea of movies based on books — fiction, nonfiction, and even self-help books — but what about books of poetry? Last week, Open Culture posted a fascinating film based on the poetry of Sylvia Plath. While it might seem surprising to see a film based on a poem, it’s actually probably a lot more common than you think. To prove it, find ten great films based on poetry after the jump. Don’t see your favorite? Add it to the list in the comments.

Lady Lazarus

This 1991 film by experimental feminist filmmaker Sandra Lahire is centered around Sylvia Plath’s famous poem “Lady Lazarus,” taking its audio from Plath’s own reading of the poem, as well as “Cut,” “Daddy,” “Ariel,” and “Ouija,” as well as excerpts from a 1962 interview. Lahire describes the film, the first in a trilogy of Plath-related films she would shoot over the next few years, as “a visually woven response to Sylvia Plath’s own readings of her poetry… which celebrates her macabre humour and cinematic vision. A carousel of images in windows, an atmosphere of constant metamorphosis; her poetry as cinema.”

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

As you probably know, the Coen brothers’ 2000 comedy was based on Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, with George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill, the modern Odysseus. Somewhat surprisingly, at the time of filming, neither brother had actually read the classic poem — in fact, the only person on set who had was actor Tim Blake Nelson, who holds a degree in Classics from Brown University.


But of course — the favorite Disney film of those who like their princesses with sword in hand is based (however loosely, you know who we’re dealing with) on sixth-century Chinese poem the Ballad of Mulan.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s genre-busting classic began life as a poem written by the director in 1982, while he was working as an animator at Disney. Eight years later, he signed a deal with the company to turn the poem into a production, and everyone’s favorite Halloween/Christmas movie was born. Read the original poem here, or just listen above.


Fun fact: Mel Gibson’s best movie was based on an epic poem by 15th-century minstrel Blind Harry, entitled “The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace,” or simply “The Wallace,” which sings of the life and deeds of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. In defending the historical accuracy of the script, writer Randall Wallace apparently said, “Is Blind Harry true? I don’t know. I know that it spoke to my heart and that’s what matters to me, that it spoke to my heart.”

The Man From Snowy River

Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson first published “The Man From Snowy River” — an exciting story of a horseback pursuit — in The Bulletin in 1890, and he and his poem are commemorated on the Australian ten-dollar note. They are also commemorated in two films, a silent black-and-white version released in 1920, and an award-winning 1982 drama, which held the dubious title of the most popular Australian film of all time until the release of Crocodile Dundee.

The White Cliffs of Dover

This 1944 film was based on The White Cliffs, Alice Duer Miller’s unprecedentedly popular novel in verse. The long poem, which followed a young American girl who falls in love with an Englishman who goes off to fight in WWI, sold almost a million copies after its publication in 1940. Apparently, even Winston Churchill read it.


Okay, this is not a great film. But it seemed wrong not to include a mention of Beowulf here, given that it’s an Old English heroic epic written sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries that has somehow wiggled itself into our modern cultural consciousness. It has been adapted for the screen at least half a dozen times, including the above 2007 motion capture version written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, which deviates rather wildly from the original text.


Terry Gilliam’s 1977 fantasy film is loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem of the same name, published in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem has seen numerous film adaptations, not to mention hundreds of nods and references across popular culture. Fun fact: Boris Karloff stars in both The Raven (1935) and The Raven (1963) — the two films only connected by title and references to Poe’s work (the former features an interpretive dance of the poem; the latter is a comedy). And that doesn’t take into account The Raven (1915) or The Raven (2012).