A friend of mine who saw "Beowulf" remarked that Robert Zemeckis's semi-animated movie based on the Old English epic -- in which a Scandinavian warrior battles the monster Grendel, its mother, and a dragon across 3,000 lines of alliterative verse -- was "quite true to the poem." At first I was amused by this comment, since you can't say that of too many movies… or so I assumed. How wrong I was! A little Wikipedia-assisted research reveals that dozens -- scores, if you count Dr. Seuss -- of movies have been based on poems.
During the 1910s and '20s, for example, the popular, Gold Rush-themed verse of Robert W. Service was mined for one silent short or feature after another. In 1915 alone, movies inspired by Service's "The Song of the Wage Slave," "My Madonna," and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" appeared in theaters. Although the protagonist of the latter poem dies ("Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead,/was Dangerous Dan McGrew"), a movie sequel -- "The Vengeance of Dan McGrew" -- appeared the following year, along with not one but two features based on Service's "The Spell of the Yukon." In the 1930s, both the cartoon character Betty Boop and Helen Kane (the original "Boop-boop-a-doop" girl) portrayed Dangerous Nan McGrew; and as late as 1945, Tex Avery parodied Service's verse yet again, with "The Shooting of Dan McGoo," an animated feature starring Droopy Dog.
Half a dozen films, meanwhile, have been inspired by Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," the 1888 ballad most likely about Boston's Mike "King" Kelly. Twice as many have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's mesmerizing 1845 poem "The Raven" -- most notably the florid 1963 horror movie directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price.
As for Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "The Night Before Christmas," there have been too many screen adaptations to count, thanks in no small part to the invention of the "made-for-TV movie" in the early 1960s. Also, we shouldn't forget Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," which loosely inspired one of Monty Python's funniest efforts, in 1977.
Did you know that the 1998 Disney movie "Mulan" was based on the 6th-century Chinese epic poem "Hua Mu Lan"? As for Greco-Roman epic poems, apparently Homer's dactylic hexameter hasn't dissuaded a single director from filming one sword-and-sandal version of the "Iliad" or the "Odyssey" after another. Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" and the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou" are the most recent examples. One suspects that Jean-Luc Godard was commenting on the folly of basing a movie on a poem when -- in his 1963 film "Contempt" (which takes place on a set of a movie based on the "Odyssey"), the director Fritz Lang appears in a cameo and announces that he's filming Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil"!
Even "Beowulf" has been filmed before. The 1998 animated version featuring the voice talent of Joseph Fiennes is supposed to be amazingly faithful; while the 2005 version filmed in Iceland is visually stunning. As for the post-apocalyptic 1999 "Beowulf," Christopher "Highlander" Lambert, as the titular hero, could be speaking to the audience when he says, to Grendel, "I'm like you. I'm one of the damned."
UPDATE: Thanks for the shout-out, Dwight Garner. And thanks to the readers of Garner's Paper Cuts blog for pointing out that I neglected to mention "The White Cliffs of Dover," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "The Ancient Mariner," "The Canterbury Tales," "La Chanson de Roland," and -- most important of all -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Xanadu," starring Olivia Newton John. PS: A couple of readers have suggested the 2004 romance "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but please note it's only the title that was taken from Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard."
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.