Posted April 15, 2013 by in New Reads

Poetry Month 2013: Movies Based on Poems

National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 (Canadians are allowed in the club, too, as long as they know the secret password) The goal of the month is to highlight poetry and make it more accessible. Last week, we gave you a (very) brief history of the written art; this week, we see those pages translated onto the screen with a little list of 5 movies you might not have known are actually based on poems!


5. Troy (starring Brad Pitt, based on The Iliad)

 movies based on poems troy

homer the iliad


Look, I know when you saw Brad Pitt and Eric Bana battling it out in Greek armor, you knew it was pure poetry. (Oy, vey. Sorry about that one!) But you were right, it was. Troy is loosely based on Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, The Iliad, the oldest extant piece of Western literature.  Brad Pitt plays Achilles, the almost-invincible warrior with the fatal hunger for glory, and the film is filled with golden tinted shots, fierce vendettas, and bloody battles. The movie is a full two hours long, which is no surprise considering the original poem has 19, 465 lines-the screenwriters had a lot to work with!

“If they ever tell my story, let them say I walked with giants.
Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die.
Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, tamer of horses.
Let them say, I lived, in the time of Achilles.”


4. Howl (this one’s not such a big secret; I mentioned it last week! But it’s so good, I’m bringing it up again) starring James Franco and Jon Hamm (why have you not seen this movie?)


movies based on poems howl

allen ginsberg howl


The movie is part recitation, part live action, and part animation. It’s a visual interpretation of the poem interlaced with its back story and the infamous 1957 obscenity trial for its direct address of sexuality, specifically homosexuality.

The poem has become a classic, a pillar of the “beat generation,” protesting conformity, censorship, and puritanical discrimination.  Its syncopated, hallucinogenic imagery translates beautifully to the screen.


3. Braveheart (starring Mel Gibson, based on Blind Harry’s The Wallace

movies based on poems braveheart

movies based on poems the wallace


Mel Gibson plays Sir William Wallace, the 13th Century warrior who led the Scots against King Edward I in the First War of Scottish Independence in this five-time Academy Award winning flick  based on a 15th century epic poem written by Blind Harry: The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, also known as The Wallace.

 For many centuries, The Wallace was the second most popular book in Scotland after the Bible.  It is, of course, bloody, vulgar, patriotic, heroic, historically inaccurate, and written in rhyme:

A false usurper sinks in every foe
And liberty returns with every blow


2. Pumpkinhead and The Nightmare Before Christmas

movies based on poems pumpkinhead

movies based on poems nightmare before christmas


Okay, so these movies may not be based on famous or classic poems, but I love the idea of horror poetry so much I had to include them. Pumpkinhead is said to be based on this poem by Ed Justin. It seems, however, that nobody has heard of anything else by this Ed Justin (is he even real?) so it could all be hearsay. The Nightmare Before Christmas is most definitely based on a poem, though, by the director himself, Tim Burton! (Read the full poem here)

Then out from a grave, with a curl and a twist,
Came a whimpering, whining, spectral mist.
It was a little ghost dog, with a faint little bark,
And a jack-o’-lantern nose that glowed in the dark.


1. My absolute favorite, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 

movies based on poems eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

movies based on poems eloisa to abelard

Eternal Sunshine stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in a quirky film which references Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard.”  The poem was inspired by the story of the 12th century Heloise and  her forbidden marriage to her teacher, the philosopher Pierre Abelard. When her family finds out their secret, they have him castrated, and Heloise and Abelard enter monasteries to distract themselves from their love by focusing on God. Pope’s poem is inspired by the letters they exchange during this time.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Hold up, that is not what this movie is about. You’re right! Well, kind of. The movie takes its title from this line

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d
where Eloisa thinks it would be better if she could completely wipe her mind of Ableard: both the happiness and the misery of loving him. The movie adaptation is a romcom/scifi about an estranged couple (played by Carrey and Winslet) who use a new technology to do just that: erase each other from their memories.
I love the fact that one line from Pope’s poem contains enough emotion to fuel an entire movie.  While Eternal Sunshine has its own original plot, it’s premise is deeply rooted in that line. The movie captures the emotional anguish of Pope’s Eloisa- the love and hope, vulnerability and pain-in an exquisite, strange, and colorful film.
(Bonus: not a popular movie, perhaps, but one that is well worth seeing. If you’re feeling particularly lyrical, check out The Wind Will Carry Us, adapted from the poem of the same name by Iranian poet, Forough Farrokhzad)
Do you have a favorite movie based on a poem? Or a poem that you think would make a great movie? Let us know in the comments! Also, check out the hashtag #npm13 on twitter for more info and cool things to do during Poetry Month!


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Maritime gal friday with two degrees in literature and a love of magic realism, typography, and poetry in all its forms. Check out all my articles.