Cyrano and 9 other modern adaptations of classical literature

Classical literature seems to be a well in which modern filmmakers are never silent. The stories are timeless and often represent archetypes that are invoked over and over again over the years.

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Cyrano is yet another modern film that draws inspiration from classic literature for its source material and yet it adds something new to the mix. The best modern adaptations of classical literature usually give the viewer something they have never seen before and spruce up classic stories for a new generation, be it an even more feminist approach. Little woman or play in comic elements like in Roxanne.


Cyrano (2021)

Cyrano 2022

Currently unavailable for streaming.

The classic game Cyrano de Bergerac debuted at the end of the 19th century and has been adapted dozens of times in film form. The final interpretation of the tale sees Peter Dinklage in the title role of a man in love who longs for a woman he can never have. Along the way, he helps a friend woo his unrequited love, even if it tears him apart inside.

Cyrano adds a new wrinkle to the piece by adding musical sequences and lyrics from indie rock band The National. While the story hasn’t changed much from the original piece, the updated language and music will help attract new viewers who might not be familiar with the story.

Little Women (2019)

Available to stream on Starz or for purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little woman has been adapted numerous times and it looks like the story is playing out. However, actress and director Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of the tale in 2019 breathed new life into it and an exciting cast.

Gerwig is known for her coming-of-age films and although the story is still set in the 1800s, it feels modern. Jo’s literary ambitions are given new life and Amy, considered by many Little woman fans for being one of the most heinous characters in literature, has depth and ambition.

Howard’s End (1992)

Available to stream on Netflix.

The 1992 adaptation of EM Forster’s classic novel about social conventions in turn-of-the-century England was the first attempt to adapt a feature-length novel. The film was anchored by the stellar performances of its lead actors and it helped lift the heavy material.

While the film doesn’t modernize the story, the tight direction and brilliant playing helped make the story more interesting. Anthony Hopkins’ performance is particularly strong as a Henry, volunteer and Stentorian. This allowed him to move beyond the horror roles that Hopkins had been cataloged into.

nineteen eighty-four (1984)

1984 film injured john

Available for rent on Amazon Prime Video or Apple iTunes.

George Orwell’s legendary dystopian novel about a dark, authoritarian future seemed to become more and more true over the years. In 1984, it was only natural that a film adaptation be released and the results were magnificent.

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The film took advantage of modern advancements in cinematic technology to tell the story in a way that was not possible in previous decades. 1984 presents large sets that reflect the vast scale of Big Brother and involve a sense of inevitable doom under the dictatorship.

Roxane (1987)

Steve Martin with a bird on Roxanne's nose.

Available to stream on Starz or to rent on Amazon Prime Video or Apple iTunes.

Sometimes the best adaptations of classical literature take the story and transform it until it’s almost unrecognizable. Roxanne take the classic Cyrano de Bergerac play and brings it into modern times with a modern facelift. Instead of France, the story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, and Steve Martin skillfully plays Cyrano’s character, CD Bales.

Although the story is almost identical to the play, the change of scenery and the adjustment of the tone brought some freshness back to the old story. Martin’s portrayal of Cyrano’s surrogate updates humor for a more contemporary audience and brings comedy into the twentieth century.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martin Sheen Apocalypse now

Available for rent on Amazon Prime Video or Apple iTunes.

While many adaptations have taken classic literature and simply brought it verbatim to the screen, Apocalypse now picked up the Joseph Conrad novel The heart of darkness and detonated it. Instead of the African Congo, the film is set in war-torn Vietnam, and director Francis Ford Coppola modernizes the story in a big way.

By setting the story during a then-recent conflict, Coppola is able to retain much of the original novel’s political impact and infuse it with a dose of modernity. Conrad’s novel was an indictment against English imperialism, but Coppola’s update turns the story into a scathing anti-war flick.

Les Miserables (2012)

Marius and the other rebellious students sing

Available to stream on Netflix.

Victor Hugo’s intergenerational novel Wretched has seen countless adaptations between television and film. The most notable attempt, however, was the legendary stage musical version first produced in the UK. Naturally, a Hollywood movie adaptation of the musical was in order, and a star cast was assembled.

Wretched brought the famous play to life and infused it with epic star power. The film also brought many epic locations in the room, such as the barricades, to life in ways only possible on the big screen. Unlike many classic musical films, the vocals were recorded live on set which gave it a more natural feeling and sets it apart from other films in the genre.

Pretty Woman (1990)

George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion has seen many adaptations ranging from literal translations to films simply inspired by the tale. A pretty woman told the classic Shaw story and brought her to Los Angeles in the ’90s, where a wealthy businessman pays a sex worker to pose as his girlfriend. Richard Gere and Julia Roberts made these respective roles iconic.

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The film was a huge success and one of the defining films of the 1990s. Although the Pygmalion the archetype is familiar to most audiences, A pretty woman succeeded in updating the story and giving it a touch of R-rated humor.

Of Mice and Men (1992)

John Malkovich grabs Sherilynn Fenn's hair in Of Mice And Men

Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

John Steinbeck’s novels have often served as fodder for film adaptations, and some of his work has even been adapted almost immediately after publication. Of mice and Men is one of his most famous tales and had been adapted in the 1940s with great success. The 1992 version adds a modern cast and tells the story exactly as it was presented in the short story.

The older adaptation served its purpose for the time, but the ’90s offering added a darker layer than the novel originally had. Without the burden of strict censorship, the story is able to explore the darker side of Lenny’s violent impulses. Overall, the film has a much darker foreboding tone than previous adaptations.

Age of Innocence (1993)

Michell Pfeiffer in Age of Innocence

Legendary director Martin Scorsese stepped out of his comfort zone when he tackled Edith Wharton’s classic love story in the late 19th century, The age of Innocence. Although the film has been adapted before, Scorsese was able to take the story in new directions and with a modern cast as well.

Where period pieces may be known for their stillness, Scorsese’s active camera brings frenzied energy to the film. The film proved that Scorsese was able to tell any story he wanted and it also proved that classical literature was still a worthy cinematic genre in the 1990s.

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